USA — The U.S. Forest Service budgeted up to $1.9 million to fight the Juniper Prairie Wilderness fire but will spend closer to $1.2 million to extinguish the blaze, which has consumed 10,000 acres of forest land since March 10.
We really kept costs down,” said District Ranger Rick Lint, who oversees the Ocala National Forest. “We’re probably running $100,000 a day. Most of that was helicopters.”
By midweek, Lint had spent roughly $857,000, more than half – $451,000 – on the choppers.
The money to combat the nation’s wildfires is taken from a fund appropriated by Congress.
Because the Juniper Prairie is a federally designated wilderness area, a preservation system established by the Wilderness Act of 1964, no mechanized equipment could be brought on the land, so firefighters had to attack the blaze on foot, by air or on water.
Four helicopters that are under contract were brought in to assist.
“They come with all kinds of support vehicles for that one helicopter,” Deputy District Ranger Carrie Christman said.
Christman said the helicopter costs include the pilot’s compensation, a mechanic and other equipment.
The helicopters are used for three types of operations.
The first is for reconnaissance. Global positioning equipment is used to determine how large the fire is and where hot spots are located.
The second is to help set the perimeter. In a large fire, efforts are made to burn up the trees and shrubs creating a ring around the fire. When the fire reaches that perimeter there is nothing left to burn so it cannot spread any further.
A machine that ejects a chemically loaded ball that resembles a ping pong ball is brought on the helicopter. After they’re ejected, the balls ignite when they hit the ground.
“We will have some ground crews carrying torches, but to really move quickly and get this done efficiently, we use the helicopters,” Christman said.
The helicopter is also used put out small fires that start when pieces of foliage catch fire.
“That’s a quick way to help extinguish a spot fire,” Christman said.
After the helicopters, the second largest expense is personnel. By Wednesday, $288,932 had been spent on firefighters.
Christman said about 132 people were working full time on the fire. The majority – 122 – are U.S. Forest employees who came all over the country to assist. Firefighters from California, Michigan and Montana had to be flown in by airplane, housed in hotels and fed. Those within driving distance used government vehicles.
Christman said that on larger fires caterers are hired to bring in meals but this was a smaller incident.
“They are eating at local restaurants or bringing their lunches,” Christman said. “They get reimbursed for that. People who are local provide their own meals.”
There are law enforcement expenses as well. The Forest Service’s four officers have been working around the clock. The Marion County Sheriff’s Office also assisted, and their salaries get refunded through federal firefighting dollars.”
As the fire became more contained, some of the firefighters and equipment were relieved.
“Obviously, it’s a very costly operation, but we want to keep costs as low as we can,” Christman said.
The Forest Service also rents other equipment, including dozers, tractors, small fire engines, water tenders and cars and incurs costs for sundry supplies.
Christman said an indirect cost of the fire fighting is the “Prevention Team” comprised of five Forest Service and one state employee, who go out into the community to disseminate information.
“It’s trying to get information out there to help people to be really careful about the whole fire situation and to know they should not be doing any burning right now,” Christman said. “We are really in an extreme drought with no sign of relief until the tropical weather gets here in June.”
The cost in lost resources is unknown.
“This is not having any catastrophic results because fire is part of the ecosystem,” Christman said.
Timber harvesting, which is permitted in other areas of the forest, is prohibited in the wilderness area, so the Forest Service will not lose any timber revenue to the fire.
Regarding losses in recreation dollars, Patricia Tooley, who oversees special uses for the Forest Service, said Sweetwater Cabin, which the Forest Service rents for $700 a week, was closed for a week. Juniper Springs Campground was closed on March 10 and 38 campers were evacuated. Recreation Resource Management holds the concession contract with the Forest Service for the campgrounds and the canoe runs at Juniper Springs. The Forest Service gets a percent of the profits.