The UA's Program on Economics, Law, and the Environment is supported by the James E. Rogers College of Law, the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Cardon Endowment for Agricultural and Resource Economics. The program studies the environment and natural resources through a perspective that combines economics and law.
Offering a critical evaluation of wildfire management from economic and policy perspectives, more than one dozen experts from the U.S. and Australia contributed to a new book born out of a symposium held last year at the University of Arizona.
On the heels of an intense fire season in the southwestern region, "Wildfire Policy: Law and Economics Perspectives" is being published by Resources for the Future Press in December.
The book broadly considers issues related to climate change, land development on the urban-wildland interface, tort liability, property management, homeownership, climate change, and suppression practices in both the public and private spheres.
"In recent years, the U.S. has experienced more and larger fires and attendant costly damages to people and property. There are many critics out there but little analysis," said Dean Lueck, a UA agricultural and resource economics professor.
Blame has been placed on a range of players – government agencies, policies and property owners being among them.
"The goal is to stimulate scholars and policy makers and administrators to collect data and study the issues to gain understanding," said Lueck, who also co-directs the UA's Program on Economics, Law and the Environment.
"The lack of empirically based analysis makes it impossible to assess these critiques and the related issues," Lueck said. "The book and the authors all recognize this and offer a beginning to serious inquiry to these question and do so from the perspective of law and economics."
Lueck is a contributing co-editor of the book with Karen Bradshaw, clerk to the Honorable E. Grady Jolly in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. A wildfire management symposium held last fall served as the impetus for the book.
With wildfires in the last two decades showing increased intensity, the contributors set out to investigate timely and relevant issues. Among the questions: Who should manage wildfires? When it comes to controls, what is cost-efficient? Should liability rules for runaway fires be shifted?
Jonathan Yoder, an associate professor for Washington State University's School of Economic Sciences and one of the book's contributors, was concerned with property insurance and liability law.
For his chapter, Yoder focused on fire prevention, control and suppression incentives – "the management of the risk of fire before ignition, intentional fire use, and suppression of fires after they escape control," he said – with a focus on liability law.
Chiefly, he sought to explain how how existing liability law affects incentives to prevent fires or to control and suppress them.
"For traditional property and real estate insurance, there is little incentive to mitigate risk unless there are other rules and regulates to bolster incentives," said Yoder, who specializes in environmental and natural resource economics.
"There is a set of liability law that says, 'If you start a fire or make accidental fire ignition too likely, in almost all cases you face a negligence rule," he noted.
But an importation exception to the standard application of negligence rules exists – and it relates to fires that are due largely to excessive natural accumulation of fuels.
"Over time the structure of fuels changes in a way that makes them more prone to really difficult and damaging fires," and active wildfire suppression as we have had in the last 100 years exacerbates the problem, Yoder said.
"It is no fault of your own in the law if, say, lightening strikes and a wildfire starts on heavy naturally occurring vegetation on your land, but then burns down your neighbor's million-dollar home," Yoder said.
This weakens incentives to manage the "natural accumulation of natural fuel," he said, adding that this represents a challenge for wildfire risk management.
"If you have weak incentives for reducing fuel loads, you can strengthen those incentives if you can reduce the cost of dealing with the problem." For example, community-based "cost share programs," reduce fuel reduction costs to property owners, and are becoming increasingly common.
Another contributor, Jeff Bennett, considered insurance and incentives related to the cost of fighting fires in the southeast Australia – a region that has a well-established history relying on volunteer firefighters.
Bennett, who directs the Environmental Economics Research Hub at Australian National University, said wildfires remain a "significant issue" in Australia each summer.
"We have absolutely catastrophic fires, not just in property terms, but in the value of human lives lost from time to time," Bennett said. "It is a real problem for us."
Every village and town in rural Australia has a volunteer firefighter service – commonly known as a bushfire brigade – comprised of local individuals. Such groups have traditionally received government funding to purchase equipment.
However, in recent years, government agencies have more heavily funneled funding toward professional firefighters. Simultaneously, the number of volunteer firefighters is on the decline. It is that shift Bennett sought to investigate to determine whether there was, indeed, a cause and effect relationship between the two factors.
"For me, this caused some concern, and it not merely because of declining numbers of people in rural areas. The proportion of volunteers if falling," he said. "This leads to the question, 'How much should the government be investing, or should it back off?'"
Bennett has two key suggestions: Reduce the levy imposed on fire insurance, which the government then uses to increase firefighting services and activities; and improve financial support and other funding mechanisms for volunteer firefighters.
"Australia has been much more heavily oriented toward these volunteer efforts partially because of the prevalence of fires in the southeast," Bennett said, noting that such brigades have been recognized for about 100 years. "We should encourage the use of volunteers instead of stepping over them."