Despite the disruptions they cause, large wildfires are a mixed economic bag for nearby communities, according to findings from a research project by the University of Oregon's Ecosystem Workforce Program and its collaborators.
Wildfires disrupt the lives of workers, employers and families, and lead to longer-term instability in local labor markets, the project funded by Joint Fire Science Program found. But on the flip side of the coin, countywide employment and wages increase in some sectors during the wildfires, often mitigating the short-term employment disruptions wildfires cause.
"The increased spending on services related to fire suppression efforts certainly does not undo the social and economic damage caused by a wildfire," said Cassandra Moseley, director of the Ecosystem Workforce Program and the Institute for a Sustainable Environment.
"But that initial burst of money does offset some of the immediate economic damage." Moseley said. "How the Forest Service spends its suppression money greatly influences how a community experiences a fire."
The UO study found that employment and wages in a county tend to increase during large wildfires. But those same fires often lead to longer-term instability in local labor markets, by amplifying seasonal "ups and downs" in employment over the subsequent year. Among the sectors most affected in the months following a fire are tourism and natural resources, which are often vital to the well-being of rural communities.
There has been little previous research on the effects of large wildfires on local employment and wages. The study, done in collaboration with researchers at the U.S. Forest Service, analyzed the impacts on labor markets as well as the extent of economic relief that results from spending on fire suppression. The purpose of the study was to help fire managers, policy makers and community leaders understand the short- and long-term effects of wildfires so they can better plan for the challenges and opportunities wildfires present.
The amount of fire suppression money spent by the U.S. Forest Service in the counties where large wildfires occurred ranged from zero to 25 percent, but averaged about 6 percent, according to the study. But rural and resource-dependent counties may take the biggest hit from wildfires because of their limited capture of fire suppression spending.
The UO research is based on an in-depth case study of the community economic impacts of a series of wildfires in Trinity County, California, in 2008, along with Bureau of Labor Statistics and Forest Service data that compared labor market trends in selected Western counties between 2004 and 2008. The research group will be releasing a number of reports later this year that detail the study's results.
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