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

What are the benefits of mitigating natural disasters? While a large literature investigates the costs of natural disasters, the benefits of disaster mitigation are relatively unknown. In part, this may be because of the challenge of identifying an appropriate counterfactual. This paper examines benefits of wildfire mitigation, a long-running form of natural disaster mitigation, using boundaries of historical wildfires within the western U.S. To estimate counterfactual wildfire outcomes, I adopt a two-step strategy. In the first step, I make use of outputs from a state-of-the-art wildfire simulation model, as well as spatial data describing at-risk assets across the landscape. Within a novel spatial duration model, I use these data to estimate the relative contributions of fire suppression effort and natural factors to the probability a wildfire will be extinguished. In the second step, results from the model of fire extinction probabilities are used to estimate predicted fire spread with and without suppression effort, and these probabilities are used to estimate expected avoided structure losses due to wildfire suppression. I find that, at least in the short-run, wildfire suppression exceeds its cost.

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)