Burning down the house: Wildfire and the benefits of natural disaster response (Job market paper)

For more than a century, government wildfire managers have aggressively suppressed wildfires within western U.S. forests. In that time, our understanding of the ecological benefits of wildfire has improved. Nevertheless, it has been politically difficult for managers to limit suppression effort, even for relatively non-threatening wildfires. As wildfires within the western U.S. become more frequent, more severe, and more costly to manage, it will become increasingly important to allocate responses to wildfire efficiently. Yet we know very little about benefits of wildfire suppression, in part because it is difficult to know how a fire might have spread in absence of suppression. To estimate benefits of wildfire suppression, I adopt a two-step strategy. In the first step, I use a novel spatial duration model, historical fire perimeters, and outputs from a state-of-the-art wildfire simulation tool to estimate the relative contributions of fire suppression effort and physical factors to the probability a wildfire will be extinguished. In the second step, estimates of the model are used to predict fire spread probabilities with and without suppression effort, and these probabilities are used to compute estimates of avoided structure losses due to wildfire suppression. Comparing estimated benefits of wildfire suppression to reported costs, I find that the net benefits of fire suppression vary substantially across fires. While in some cases wildfire suppression generates large net benefits, avoided losses to structures do not justify costs of suppression for many wildfires, especially those that begin in remote areas.

Salience and the government provision of public goods (with Sarah Anderson and Andrew Plantinga)

This paper examines the consequences of salience for the government provision of public goods. Salience is a common behavioral bias whereby people’s attention is drawn to salient features of a decision problem, leading them to overweight prominent information in subsequent judgments. We analyze the case in which the public’s demand for the good is distorted by salient events, and explore how salience influences public good allocation and efficiency. Theoretical predictions regarding public good allocation are ambiguous and depend on the magnitude of the change in payoffs and the extent of salience effects. We test whether salience increases or decreases allocation of government projects to reduce wildfi re severity near wildland-adjacent communities. Even though the occurrence of a wild fire likely reduces the severity of future fires in the same area, it may increase the likelihood that fuels management projects are placed nearby if wild fire events strongly increase the salience of losses under future fires. We find strong evidence that the salience effects increase the likelihood of fuels management projects, and use robustness checks to eliminate competing explanations for our results. Our salience framework may also other insights into government responses to terrorism, natural disasters, disease outbreaks, and environmental catastrophes.

Salience and (mal-)adaptive responses to climate-change (with Sarah Anderson, Ryan Bart, Maureen Kennedy, Andrew MacDonald, Max Moritz, Andrew Plantinga, Christina Tague, and Ethan Turpin, paper to come)

Risk preferences, probability weighting, and strategy tradeoffs in wildfire management (with Michael S. Hand, David E. Calkin, and Matthew P. Thompson, published in Risk Analysis, Vol. 35, No. 10, 2015)

Risk preferences in strategic wildfire decision making: A choice experiment with U.S. wildfire managers (with Michael S. Hand, David E. Calkin, Tyron J. Venn, and Matthew P. Thompson, published in Risk Analysis, Vol. 33, No. 6, 2013)

Estimating US federal wildland fire managers’ preferences toward competing strategic suppression objectives (with David E. Calkin, Tyron J. Venn, and Matthew P. Thompson, published in International Journal of Wildland Fire, Vol. 22, No. 6, 2013)