Cost of fighting L.A. wildfire tops $92 million

Cost of fighting L.A. wildfire tops $92 million

14 September 2009

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The financial cost of battling a deadly arson fire in the mountains above Los Angeles topped $92 million on Monday, with full containment of the stubborn blaze expected by week’s end, fire officials said.

After 19 days, the so-called Station Fire has scorched over 160,000 acres, or more than 250 square miles, of tinder-dry chaparral and woodlands, most of that in the rugged San Gabriel Mountains of the Angeles National Forest.

The fire ranks as the 10th largest on record in California by acreage, and the biggest ever in Los Angeles County.

It has destroyed 89 homes, leveled 26 commercial properties and claimed the lives of two firefighters. At least 22 others people — firefighters and civilians — were injured.

More than 6,000 homes were ordered evacuated at the height of the blaze, which authorities have said was deliberately set and is under investigation as a homicide.

By Monday morning, authorities said that containment lines had been carved around 87 percent of the fire’s perimeter, and they expected to achieve full enclosure by Saturday.

With operations starting to wind down, the number of firefighters was reduced by nearly half over the weekend, leaving nearly 1,200 crew members still on duty. At its peak some 5,200 personnel from all over the western United States were assigned to the blaze.

With the Station Fire and numerous smaller blazes that have flared up across California in recent weeks, the cash-strapped state already has spent about $115 million of its $182 million firefighting budget for the fiscal year, said Daniel Berlant, a California Forestry and Fire Protection Department spokesman.

The tally for the Station Fire alone has grown to $92.6 million and “has a very good chance” of topping $100 million “by the time all is said and done,” said Ray Dombroski of the U.S. Forest Service.

But the federal government will bear the bulk of that cost because the blaze has burned mostly within a national forest.

Moreover, the U.S. government already has approved disaster grants that will reimburse the state and local agencies for up to 75 percent of what they spent on the Station Fire and some of the other blazes in California this season.

But the cost of the fire could continue to climb well past the point where the last ember is extinguished, when mountain slopes stripped of vegetation give way to devastating mudslides unleashed by rains expected this winter, officials said.

The total amount of land burned so far this year in California, about 350,000 acres, still pales compared with the record 1.6 million acres charred last year, the bulk of that from a string of lightning-ignited fires, Dombroski said.

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