Not learning lessons of '98 fires will prove costly

May 20, 2007

This op-ed appeared May 20 in the Orlando Sentinel.

By: Francis E. ‘Jack’ Putz
Francis E. “Jack” Putz is a professor of botany at the University of Florida.

The fire season has barely started, but the costs of wildfires in Florida are already soaring. Few homes have been destroyed so far, but with more dry weather likely, more will probably go up in flames before the summer rains start. Given that the disastrous fires of 1998 didn’t get cranking until June, 2007 is likely to go down as the costliest fire season on record.

But what did the 1998 fires cost? Who paid? And what should we have learned from that experience?

According to a study by USDA Forest Service economists that appeared in the Journal of Forestry in 2001, the Florida wildfires of June-July 1998 burned about 500,000 acres and cost at least $600 million. This estimated price tag on six weeks of catastrophic wildfires in northeast Florida includes the cost of canceling the Daytona 500 and the otherwise steep decline in tourism. But it does not include the lingering effects of smoke on the tourist trade or the indirect costs of road closures.

The authors’ admittedly conservative estimate also includes the costs of 100 percent increases in emergency-room visits for asthma and bronchitis, but does not include lost worker productivity and wages. The $600 million includes $12 million in destroyed houses, businesses, cars and boats, but only insured properties were considered.

Who paid the costs of the 1998 fires, and who is paying today? From the Forest Service study, it appears that commercial forest owners are the big losers from big fires — lost profits to the tune of $400 million in 1998. Wildfire suppression and disaster relief in 1998 ended up costing about $100 million, which came out of local, state and federal government coffers. All those firefighters, bulldozers, fire engines and helicopters certainly cost us taxpayers a pretty penny. I’m not sure that we should all be paying these costs, but we are.

The financial damages from big fires compare to Category 2 hurricanes, but, with hurricanes, we at least have increasingly strict building codes. There has been no such progress when it comes to fires. With more and more people building homes at the forests’ edge, the price of this season’s fires is likely to be astronomical.

When a wet El Niño winter is followed by an extremely dry La Niña spring, wildfires are unavoidable in Florida, lightning capital of North America. Our soils are sandy, nutrient-poor and severely drained. Droughts are common and becoming more so due to climate change. Our natural savannas and woodlands tolerate drought, make due with scarce nutrients, and thrive only where fires sweep across the land every two to three years. Without fire, most of our native species disappear. To avoid this fate, many species promote the frequent fires with their flammable foliage. Pine needles, wiregrass leaves and palmetto fronds seem designed to burn.

What made the fires of 1998 so devastating, and what is causing the 2007 fires to be so hard to stop, is that despite lots of warnings, we have allowed huge quantities of fuel to accumulate. To some extent, plummeting pulpwood prices have spurred industrial forest owners to plant lower densities and thin their stands, but many plantations and forests are still too dense.

Consequently, instead of the creeping surface fires that have burned across Florida for millennia, we now face unstoppable crown fires. Instead of investing in fuel management through controlled burning and fire-preventing treatments such as thinning, we let pine-needle brush collect in tinderboxes of epic proportions.

Some of us remember back in 1998, when the fire bearing down on the town of Waldo was transformed from a raging crown fire to a moderate intensity understory fire when it reached landowner Clark Smith’s well-managed pinelands. His efforts at ecosystem management through frequent controlled burns saved the town.

We need more Clark Smiths, more savannas and open-canopied woodlands, and more preventive action so as to lessen the extent and the power of the wildfires inevitable in Florida. Instead, we have burdensome regulations on controlled burns, native savannas choked by invasive hardwoods, residents who don’t recognize the benefits of frequent low-intensity fires, pines planted as thick as the hair on a dog’s back, massive amounts of fuel, firefighters risking their lives, homeowners losing their homes and smoke in the air.