By air and by ground, firefighting costs add up quickly

By air and by ground, firefighting costs add up quickly

10 September 2011

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USA — The sight of the massive, specially outfitted DC-10, waiting on an Austin tarmac to be called up to dump fire retardant on Texas wildfires, may have signaled hope to weary firefighters.

But to state financial officers, it meant money. Eventually, use of the plane will cost Texas taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.

According to the Texas Forest Service, the privately owned jet costs $45,000 just to show up, payable to the U.S. Forest Service, which contracts to use it. Another $12,000 is added to the bill each hour it is in use. Last week marked the second time Texas called in the plane; it was also used to fight fires in April.

In California, the state firefighting agency, Cal Fire , owns its own fleet of planes. While the Texas Forest Service has 80 bulldozers and 10 fire engines, it prefers to rent planes when it requires air power to help battle wildfires.

No one wants to count pennies when lives are threatened and property is burning. But eventually the bill comes due, and the costs can add up.

Each time a helicopter or fixed-wing plane takes off with a bucket of water or a load of bright red fire retardant, the state gets a bill. In 2006, fighting flames from above cost the state about $25 million. In 2009, the bill was just less than $19 million.

According to the Forest Service, about 20,000 wildfires have charred 3.7 million acres across the state since Jan. 1, with 4,998 homes and other buildings destroyed.

In many instances, fire bosses called in air power to assist firefighters on the ground. Even before the Bastrop fire, planes and helicopters had logged just less than 14,000 flight hours, dropping 20.7 million gallons of water and 4.75 million gallons of retardant on Texas hot spots, according to the Forest Service.

As of Thursday, the tab for fighting the state’s 2011 wildland fires had already reached a staggering $202.84 million — $63.75 million alone for plane and helicopter rentals.

Generally, the Forest Service doesn’t have that sort of cash. So it collects the bills and then asks the Legislature for enough money to cover the tab when it meets every two years. This past session, lawmakers appropriated $121 million to cover firefighting costs racked up in earlier years — about five times what the agency itself spends on fire suppression each year.

More taxpayer money is spent on the fires when professional firefighters, such as those from Austin working the Bastrop fire, file for reimbursement of their salaries through the Texas Division of Emergency Management for the time spent working outside their jurisdictions. Local departments can also be reimbursed for use of their equipment, which can run to more than $100 per day per truck. The money, which comes from the governor’s office, can add up to millions more.

The Texas Forest Service has been criticized for spending so much money on bringing in firefighting personnel and equipment from outside of Texas. “On average, an out-of-state firefighter costs almost double that of an in-state firefighter,” the Texas Sunset Advisory Commission’s July 2011 report noted. “TFS spends about $725 per day for a non-Texas firefighter compared to about $375 a day for a TFS seasonal firefighter.”

The report found that in the past five years, the agency had spent more than 86 percent of the money it needed to fight fires on out-of-state personnel, ground equipment and air support. In response, lawmakers from this past legislative session passed a new law that for the first time would allow Texas volunteer firefighters to be paid while working on large state wildfires, said Chris Barron, executive director of the State Fireman’s & Fire Marshals’ Association of Texas .

As the use of airplanes and helicopters to fight fires has increased, critics have questioned their cost-benefit value, wondering if they are more useful as highly visible public relations tools to assure frightened property owners that something is being done rather than as instruments of fire suppression.

But George Jones, who coordinates firefighting aircraft dispatch at the 15-state Southern Area Coordination Center, said, “without aviation assets, we’d be much less effective.”

Early in a fire, planes and helicopters can provide incident commanders with crucial size-up information about the fire, he said. Later, they can quickly dump water on or near an advancing fire to slow its spread.

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