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Wildfires in April signal growing costs of climate change

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Firefighter extinguishing a fire on a smoggy road.

As the risk for wildfires rises, small cities struggle to find the resources to combat them.

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June through October used to be wildfire season, but already wildfires are burning throughout the Southwest. And few communities in northern New Mexico and central Arizona are under evacuation orders. Now, thanks to climate change and the current “megadrought,” the risk is basically year-round.

As fire risks grow more intense and resources to combat them are drying up, cities prone to risk are facing a conundrum.

The Calf Canyon and Hermit’s Peak fire has burned more than 54,000 acres in northern New Mexico, including outside of the small city of Las Vegas.

“It’s just awful. It’s like a bad dream that doesn’t stop,” said Mayor Louie Trujillo. Cattle ranches and businesses have been destroyed, he said.

“Financially, for our community, I’m sure it’s gonna hurt,” Trujillo said.

One problem as the fire season expands is that the federal wildland firefighting system is understaffed. 

“It doesn’t pay people a lot of money, and then asks people during the fire season to spend 14 days on, two days off fighting fires all over the country,” said Michael Wara, director of Stanford’s Climate and Energy Policy Program. Making the job more attractive would take a massive federal investment. 

“But I think we’re gonna have to pay, right? Like it’s just, we’re gonna have to come up with the money,” he said.

And fire suppression is just a small part of the equation, according to Kimiko Barrett, a researcher at Headwaters Economics. 

Barrett said most recovery costs are borne at the local level, by local homeowners, businesses and municipal government. Local governments can get out ahead of those costs by retrofitting buildings and infrastructure for fire resilience, she said. But that won’t come cheap, either. 

There is a role for both state and federal government to be able to offset the costs for these mitigation measures. According to Barrett, cities like Las Vegas and New Mexico should tap into funding from the federal infrastructure bill as they rebuild. 

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