Fighting wildfires boosts local economies

Friday , February 01, 2013 - 1:32 PM

David Benda

Fighting fire is big business that generally boosts local employment and wages, a University of Oregon study shows.

Prepared by Oregon’s Institute For a Sustainable Environment, the study tracks data from 346 large wildfires from 2004 to 2008. It found labor market disruptions caused by fires are outweighed by employment gains the suppression efforts generate in the short term.

This is believed to be the first study of its kind to provide data that show a fire’s effect on the economy.

“We sell a lot more fire boots in fire season -- the firefighters have money,” said Brian Fay, who co-owns Shasta Boot Co. in Redding, Calif. Fay estimates he gets about a 20 percent boost in his business during a busy fire season. “It actually brings business when you have fires.”

But it takes some planning on the part of the business to prepare for the fire season.

“We have to order our fire boots this time of year,” Fay said, adding he could have boots left over. “If it’s busy, we will be out of them, which is what you want because these are $400 to $500 boots. If the guys don’t buy them, that makes the bookkeeper not real happy.”

The Oregon study crunched numbers for fires in which the U.S. Forest Service was the lead fighting agency and suppression costs exceeded $1 million per fire. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ numbers were used for employment and wage data.

The study looked at 124 counties in the West. Of those, nearly half experienced only one fire during the five-year period. A third had three or more fires.

The counties’ local economies were categorized as based on recreation, service or government. Government-dependent counties experienced a greater jump in wages than the other two, the study said.

Most of the fires occurred during the summer, when tourism dollars are coming into counties.

“We found that the effect of large wildfires on local labor markets remained significant even after controlling for summer seasonal trends,” the study said.

Tonya Dowse, executive director of the Siskiyou County Economic Development Council in northern California, said, “Obviously our county is pretty dependent on the forest and timber, and timber has historically been the bedrock industry. Unfortunately, you have to factor in the forest fire economy and you try to make sure you get the most return out of it, if you can.”

Dowse’s organization has a business incubator that for years housed a startup that provided food to the fire lines.

“We worked with a local company that started a business serving lunches to fire crews, so we could have somebody here locally competing for contracts with the Forest Service and CalFire, as opposed to vendors coming from outside the area,” Dowse said.

The business was successful, but “obviously they were dependent on whether there was a need for their service,” Dowse said. “You make the best out of a bad situation, right? And you try to derive as much local benefit as possible.”


The University of Oregon’s Institute for a Sustainable Environment examined the effect of large wildfires on local labor markets. It found:* The U.S. Forest Service spent $2.4 billion on 346 large wildfires in 124 western counties from 2004 to 2008.* The average fire cost the Forest Service $7 million.* Employment increased 1.5 percent and average wages went up 0.9 percent over statewide trends in counties where at least one wildfire burned. Increases occurred during the quarter that the fire was burning.* Counties adjacent to where the fire burned experienced an average wage increase of 0.4 percent. There was no statistical change in employment.

(Contact David Benda of the Redding Record Searchlight in California at