Burning through money: The cost of Utah wildfires

Burning through money: The cost of Utah wildfires

15 July 2012

published by www.sltrib.com

USA – Fire season has only just begun, but Utah’s wildfires have already burned more than half of the acreage consumed in the record-setting 2007 fire season.

If this year’s fire season ends up being anything like 2007 — the year of Utah’s largest wildfire in state history — Utahns are in for a financial doozy.

As of Sunday, wildfires already have burned 394,614 acres in Utah, and the cost of fighting those fires has reached roughly $47.1 million, according to estimates supplied by Eastern Great Basin Coordination Center (EGBCC). Since June 1, there have been nearly 30 large fires (more than 100 acres in timber or 300 acres in grass), and those alone have charred more than 305,000 acres so far.

Compare that to 2007, when a record 629,212 acres were blackened. That year, in July, the Milford Flat Fire alone burned 363,000 acres and ended up costing the state and federal government $5 million.

“If it were to continue at the current rate, it would have quite an impact,” said Ron Bigelow, executive director of the governor’s Office of Planning and Budget. “This will be one of the more significant years for cost.”

The biggest elements affecting firefighting costs are the volume of land or type of terrain consumed. Some areas can be easily accessible and fought on the ground, while others may be so remote and rugged with cliffs that only air support can fight the fire. Whenever air support is used, the cost can rise substantially.

“The more fires and the most acres … are what drive the cost of the fires,” Bigelow said.

In the past decade, there have been six fire seasons where more than 100,000 acres burned, including that record year in 2007, according to the EGBCC. That same year there were 1,422 other wildland fires.

This year, Utahns have been responsible for starting the majority of fires thus far, according to data from the EGBCC. In 2012, there have been 459 human-caused wildfires. Compare that with 160 fires ignited by lightning. In total, 619 wildfires have been reported in 2012. The majority of fires this season have been preventable, fire officials say.

Fire season officially begins in July and goes through August. This is when overall temperatures peak, monsoon season brings dry lightning and dry, hot, windy conditions become a prime foundation for starting fires. Even though fire season is at its peak during these months, fires can burn until snow is on the ground.

Because of the conditions this year, more resources are required to put out fires that have burned faster and hotter than average, according to Heather O’Hanlon, spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management of Utah.

When local fire agencies combine to fight a fire, that is considered a Type III fire. If the blaze gets beyond their control, a Type II regional team is called in with about 40 more people and resources to help manage a larger group. If fire resources are still understaffed and more help is needed, a Type I crew is ordered. A Type I crew is a national crew with the largest organization possible for fighting a wildfire.

“We are definitely ahead of the average [amount of fires] for now by a long shot, and the conditions are very dry,” O’Hanlon said.

The most expensive factor is typically support from helicopters or airplanes. Helicopters cost up to $35,000 a day, according to the Utah State Aviation office for the BLM. The numbers vary with the type of chopper and its capabilities.

When it comes to airplanes, the average cost for an air tanker is about $10,000 a day. Costs include maintenance, fuel and insurance and costs for the pilot, even if the aircraft doesn’t fly because of weather or other conditions.

Second in line are the costs for food or catering, portable showers and bathrooms. Firefighters are typically out on a fire for several days or weeks and don’t often stay in motels. They usually stay in tents at a fire camp. If there is a large fire where federal crews are involved in a Type I or Type IIfire, crews don’t eat the Meals Ready to Eat like they would while fighting a small fire. Instead they are taken care of by a national catering contract.

“It becomes easier to bring in a caterer that is used to cooking for that large an amount of people,” O’Hanlon explained. She said it becomes too much for local resources to make the meals and pack lunches for crews to take to the fire line with them.

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