Report puts $797M price tag on Rim fire’s damage to ecosystem

jholland@modbee.comDecember 25, 2013 

Until they burned, oaks and pines in the Rim fire area absorbed carbon dioxide and emitted oxygen, a useful service for the planet.

The massive blaze reduced the value of this function by as much as $797 million, according to an initial estimate by economists who specialize in accounting for “ecosystem services,” or what nature provides to humans.

Before the giant fire started Aug. 17 in the Stanislaus National Forest, the growing vegetation stored carbon that otherwise would rise into the atmosphere and contribute to a general warming of the climate, the experts said. The fire sent a huge blast of carbon into the sky and impaired for decades the forest’s ability to capture it.

The report cited lost ecosystem services related to recreation, water supply, aesthetics and other categories in the national forest and on burned land in Yosemite National Park and private ownership.

It was done by Earth Economics of Tacoma, Wash., for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, which gets water and hydropower from the burn area. The city, along with the Modesto and Turlock irrigation districts, is watching for soil erosion and debris in the Tuolumne River reservoirs. So far, that has not been a problem.

Some experts have tallied the fire-suppression cost – $127 million – and others are putting together estimates on the impact to the timber supply, some of which will be salvaged at lumber mills.

The new report, “The Economic Impact of the 2013 Rim Fire on Natural Lands,” looks at losses that often are not noted by traditional economists. The 45-page document is based on information gathered in September.

“This assessment was conducted while the fire was still burning,” it said. “Some trees partially fire-damaged and green in satellite imagery will suffer mortality within the next year, thus, this analysis represents an initial and conservative underestimate of fire damage.”

The fire, believed to have started from a hunter’s illegal campfire, burned across 257,314 acres before it was contained in October. It was the fifth-largest in the state’s recorded history and the third-largest in the Sierra Nevada.

The report provides a wide range of estimates because it is based not on specific sites but on past studies of how wildfire damages ecosystem services. Thus, the carbon storage estimate is between $102 million and $797 million, which reflects in part the widely varying methods for calculating the value of this service.

The report cites an example of how humans managed the ecosystem in a way that contained some of the damage. Yosemite managers in recent decades have allowed some low-intensity fires to burn, reducing the understory vegetation that could fuel an inferno. This was done on land next to San Francisco’s Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, easing the intensity of the Rim’s flames.

“This highlights the importance of understanding the ecology and economics of forests, fires, climate change and federal and local investments in forest health and firefighting,” the report said.

More information is at www.eartheconomics.org.

Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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