WASHINGTON – Increasing development in wilderness areas, especially in the West, is one reason why the federal government is shelling out more money to battle wildfires, experts say.
Suburbia's decades-long encroachment into forests and woods is sparking fresh concern because the blazes are getting bigger, deadlier and costlier to combat due to hot and dry conditions scientists attribute to climate change.
Uncle Sam is spending more to hire additional firefighters and deploy more helicopters, fire trucks, airplanes and other equipment to protect homes in "wildland-urban interfaces," experts say.
The interfaces are high-fire-risk regions where homes, subdivisions and communities butt up against chaparral, conifers and other flammable vegetation.
Ray Rasker, executive director of Headwaters Economics, an independent research group in Bozeman, Mont., said the federal government can't tell developers where to build – that's up to local governments – but is obligated to spend whatever it takes to fight wildfires and protect property.
"It is a classic case of a moral hazard, where you have created a risky situation and the risks and the consequences of the behavior are borne by somebody else," he said.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration predicted it will spend as much as $2.4 billion this fiscal year to fight wildfires.
That's almost three times more than what it cost a decade ago, Rasker said. Meanwhile, the number of people moving to wilderness communities has also tripled, he said.
With development occurring on only 16 percent of the land in 11 states west of the Dakotas -- a region that experiences the nation's biggest wildfires -- the "problem . . . is about to get many orders of magnitude worse," Rasker said.
A study released last year by CoreLogic Inc., a data provider for the real estate and financial industries, showed that 40 percent of the nation's 115 million single-family homes were adjacent to wilderness. That finding was based on 2008 data; CoreLogic is updating the report.
Wilderness communities are never too far from big Western cities because people want to live amid rustic beauty while retaining urban conveniences, said Tom Jeffrey, a CoreLogic researcher.
Large, populated suburbs of big cities are also vulnerable - as the Southern California brush fires demonstrate. Fueled by hot, dry winds, fires this month have forced thousands of people in San Diego County and greater Los Angeles to flee their homes. Gov. Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency.
Jeffrey said even small fires can be exceedingly expensive to put out if homes are nearby.
For instance, officials used 20 fire engines, eight Black Hawk helicopters and two airplanes to put out a two-acre fire in Calabasas, Calif., in January at a cost of more than $100,000, Jeffrey said.
"There's an increased effort to hit them early and hit them hard," he said. "If they have a very strong, early response, they can hopefully contain it."
The cost to taxpayers is smaller in remote, uninhabited areas out West, experts say. That's because authorities are likely to let wildfires run their course in the absence of human settlements, but that's not an option when homes are threatened, said Thomas Scott, a natural resources specialist at the University of California's Berkeley and Riverside campuses.
"The reality is that if you are trying to rescue people's lives or trying to save people's houses you end up spending an awful amount of money," he said.
The number of wilderness communities rose during the 1987 and 1997 housing booms, Scott said. The trend cooled during the recent recession but appears to be heating up again as the U.S. economy improves, Scott said.
He urged local officials to do a better job of directing growth adjacent to wild areas. But local authorities typically give in to powerful real-estate developers and are too afraid of constituents who chafe at elected officials telling them where they can and cannot live, Scott said.
Consequently, in a crowded state like California, entire "stealth cities" have sprung up in the mountains – and thousands of people risk losing their homes when wildfires strike, he said.
Homes in wilderness communities sometimes "can't be saved in a large conflagration," Scott said. "The question then becomes, can you expect society to underwrite your desire to live in a chaparral?"