Wildfires, the Government, and the Distribution of Resources During Environmental Disasters



06/12/2017 (All day)


Matthew Wibbenmeyer

Original report written by Matthew Wibbenmeyer.

Matthew Wibbenmeyer became interested in wildfires as environmental phenomena while living and working in Montana, years before he began his graduate education at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

“I worked with a research arm of the U.S. Forest Service in Missoula, Montana on research aimed at understanding wildfire managers’ attitudes toward risk, and the factors they considered most important in implementing suppression strategies,” he said. “When I arrived at UC Santa Barbara, I was excited to have an opportunity to continue researching wildfire management with the Bren Strategic Environmental Research Initiative wildfire team.”

Wibbenmeyer, who is now a graduate student in the economics department, received support from an Earth Research Institute fellowship, providing him with the funding needed to conduct a study on wildfire suppression. Alongside his advisor, Andrew Platinga, and Sara Anderson of the Bren School, Wibbenmeyer examined whether wildfire managers preferentially commit greater resources toward protecting more politically valuable homes. In other words, Wibbenmeyer is interested in how government agents decide which homes are worth saving during natural disasters, such as wildfires.

While he began researching wildfires in Montana, his interest in the topic grew as he became aware of the impacts of wildfire management—and, furthermore, whether this management is politically motivated—and the effects of wildfires on forest ecosystems.

“Wildfire management is an especially sticky issue in the Western U.S.” Wibbenmeyer said. “Because we have suppressed wildfires for so long, fuel loads are high. Due to climate change and the high fuel loads, large catastrophic wildfires are increasingly common. And yet, continuing to suppress wildfires only increases fuel loads.”

To put this concept in perspective, California, in particular, has experienced numerous highly damaging wildfires in the past several years, such as the 2016 Soberanes fire near Big Sur, just over 250 miles north of Santa Barbara. Wibbenmeyer believes that because the government manages wildfires, it is imperative to understand how particular incentives affect decision-making both prior to the occurrence of wildfires and during wildfire outbreaks. 

Political incentives possibly affect wildfire maintenance, and environmental advocates have become increasingly concerned about the implications and quality of government management of wildfires. One example of this incentivisation that Wibbenmeyer draws attention to is residential areas: residential areas may be sorted based on household income and residents’ willingness to pay for public goods. Governments may be inclined to target the provision of public goods toward more politically connected groups, thereby increasing environmental justice concerns for environmental quality.

“It is important to know how government agencies make decisions,” he said. “Most people would hope that the government would manage emergencies [such as wildfire destruction] in ways that are fair and do not privilege some citizens over others. This project is trying to investigate whether that is the case.”

With this in mind, Wibbenmeyer investigated the political motivations of emergency response teams within the context of wildfire suppression. Factors such as climate change have caused wildfire severity in the western United States to increase and a greater number of homeowners are exposed to wildfire risk, and just as wildfires have increased, so too have the damages and the cost of managing them.

To test this, Wibbenmeyer and his team compared observed, real-world fire perimeters to simulated fire perimeters through the use of a fire spread model that assumes none of the fires are being suppressed or mitigated. They predicted that the difference would be a measure of the degree of fire suppression effort that fire managers committed to a fire in any given direction.

Wibbenmeyer focused his research on California from the years 2000-2014, due to the high volume of homes lost every year due to wildfires in California—thousands of homes were destroyed in the devastating Northern California wildfires in the year 2015 alone. His team used an extensive data set of housing locations and characteristics in order to evaluate whether political forces influence which homes are ultimately destroyed by wildfire.

The experiment showed that among homes predicted to burn, homes outside the actual burn perimeter are of higher value than those inside the actual burn perimeter. Even though this comparison relies on a very small sample size, it suggests that, quite possibly, managers may favor protecting high value homes over those of less value in their implementation of fire suppression strategies.

Wibbenmeyer’s research presents several methodological challenges, as well. “The problem is that managing wildfires is a spatial dynamic process,” he said. “When deciding how and when to suppress a wildfire, a manager has to account [for] the effects of her decisions on how the fire  will spread, what resources this will affect, and her options for suppression in the future. While economists are used to modeling dynamic decision processes, spatial dynamic decision making is more challenging.” 

Although Wibbenmeyer has not yet completed the home value analysis for the project and therefore has not come to any conclusive results, he aims to eventually resume and complete his research and incorporate skills used in other projects to do so.

“The ERI fellowship allowed me to concentrate on my research last summer,” he said. “While for now, this project has reached a roadblock, it led me to investigate empirical methods for estimating dynamic models, and this has led to other research project ideas.”

Hopefully, Wibbenmeyer and his team will complete their project this year, providing communities with these much-awaited answers to the ethics of wildfire management.