WNC wildfires yield hefty price tag

WNC wildfires yield hefty price tag

31 March 2017

published by http://www.citizen-times.com

USA — Fighting fire isn’t cheap.

And that’s especially true during an historic fire season, which Western North Carolina forests experienced from October to December when flames charred more than 45,000 acres on national forest land.

A hefty price tag of $36.8 million came with the record-setting fall fire season for the U.S. Forest Service as firefighters battled 28 wildfires, according to the agency on Thursday. The three-month expense exceeds the total cost of fire suppression from October 2009 through September 2016 by about $4 million.

The second-most expensive fiscal year for the U.S. Forest Service came in 2011 when $10 million was spent from the beginning of October 2010 through September 2011.

“You are not going to see costs like that when you are looking back in our fall seasons because we haven’t had fire seasons like that before,” said spokeswoman Cathy Dowd with the U.S. Forest Service in Western North Carolina.

The fall fire season occurred during WNC’s fifth-driest fall in the past 104 years and the worst since a much shorter-lived drought in the spring of 1985, according to state records. Warming temperatures have also lengthened fire seasons.

The spring fire season, which typically begins in March, began for spring 2017 in January and two wildfires since have cost the agency $1.5 million by March 29. So far, the fiscal year of 2016-17 has cost $38.4 million.

Many flames were sparked by arsonists, while one fire and the most expensive, the Boteler blaze in 2016 that burned 9,031 acres in the Nantahala National Forest, was ignited by lightning.

As several fires popped up across the mountains, costs climbed to battle flames, care for firefighters, and rehab forest lands, forcing the Forest Service to take a hit financially.

Projects across the country, such as repairing roads, campgrounds or trails, have been abandoned due to lack of funding, and Forest Service personnel, who may have been engaged in other forest responsibilities, were pulled in to help with fires and as a result pulled away from what they were working on.

What drives up costs?

The Boteler fire from Oct. 25 to Dec. 2, yielded a price tag of just over $13 million with the biggest cost paying for camp support, which includes logistics of taking care of firefighters, Dowd said.

The Forest Service has to provide housing, food, and medical support for firefighters, she said.

The agency spent $3.3 million on camp support. The second-highest cost, $2.4 million, was for fire crews and the third-highest cost, $2.1 million, paid for camp personnel, which includes facilities maintenance, cleaning and supplies.

Firefighters are often brought in from around the country, Dowd said. The Forest Service pays for firefighter’s travel time and the time they spend on the fire.

Firefighters work 16-hour shifts. They are paid eight hours of salary pay and eight hours of overtime pay.

Additionally, clothing and porta potties can also drive up the price.

To outfit one firefighter costs about $560 with a shirt costing $100, pants costing $200 and belts costing $30, according to Dowd. Each firefighter is also equipped with a fire shelter, which can cost about $300.

Other cost categories include aircraft, equipment and line personnel expenses.

One unique expense for the WNC fires was the Joint Information Center, Dowd said. The agency rented a building, filled it with office supplies and staffed it to provide the public with information about any fire burning in the area. The specific cost was not available, she said.

Additional costs can be added on to a fire months later.

For one of the Nantahala National Forest fires crews were unable to repair a dozer lines in December, and most likely won’t complete those repairs till April, Dowd said. Whatever it costs to repair those lines will eventually be incorporated into the total cost of fighting that fire, meaning that the fall fire season’s $36.4 million price tag could increase.

Local impacts

To pay the tab, the Forest Service pulls from money that can be used for any wildfire in the country, Dowd said. This fund is created based on a 10-year average cost for wildfire suppression efforts.

“If over the past 10 years wildfires have cost us on average $10 million a year that is the amount of money that gets put in that pool,” she said.

Fire suppression includes cost of aircraft, crews, equipment, camp personnel and camp support, all pulled from this pool of money. Pay for firefighters comes from their annual salary with any overtime being paid from a hazard fund, which comes out of the national budget, Dowd said.

But oftentimes, that pool of money becomes exhausted by June or July, so the Forest Service must divert money from projects or programs to suppress flames. In some cases, the programs unfunded are ones aimed at restoring forests to prevent or lessen the impacts of future wildfires like tree thinning or controlled burns.

In fiscal years 2014 and 2015, the programs lost $200 million, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

When money is borrowed from the programs to fund wildfires programs or projects are left undone for that fiscal year, Dowd said.

One of the largest funding cuts nationwide is seen in deferred maintenance projects causing the Forest Service to have a backlog in maintenance needs for repairs needed to dams, buildings, campgrounds, water and watershed systems and renovating recreation structures, according to a 2015 U.S. Forest Service report on fire suppression.

In 2001, deferred maintenance funding supported about 400 projects. In 2014, the funding supported three projects. In 2013 and 2014, 21 projects were deferred to future years including sewer repairs, water system improvements, dam repairs, and waste water system rehabilitation.

Within WNC no major projects have lost funding in recent years due to wildfires, according to Dowd.

The other local impact effects employees, Dowd said.

“Many of us have fire responsibilities that are part of our job, but not all of our job,” she said. “When we have more fires I spend more time answering questions about fire instead of doing other work.”

The same was true for the incident commander who was in charge of the most recent wildfire, the White Creek fire, that burned in the southern end of the Linville Gorge from March 16-28.

“He also has a recreation job, but because he has the qualifications, knows the area and is good at fighting fires he put aside his recreation duties,” Dowd said.

When a fire is put out employees return to their regular duties, but it can be difficult to get back on track, Dowd said. “You’re almost starting over again sometimes,” she said.

Costs on a national scale

In August 2015, the Forest Service released a report detailing the rising costs of fire-suppression since 1995.

The Forest Service said it is at a “tipping point” with their resources pushed to the brink by increasingly volatile and long fire seasons, according to the report.

For the first time in the Forest Service’s 111-year history, over half of its 2015 budget was dedicated to fight wildfires, compared to just 16 percent in 1995.

Forest Service officials say that 2015 was the most expensive fire season across the country in the department’s history, costing more than $2.6 billion on fire alone.

The cost of the Forest Service’s wildfire suppression reached a record $243 million in a one-week period during the height of suppression activity in August 2015, the report states.

As suppression costs have increased, the Forest Service has reduced its ability to sustain staffing in non-fire program areas, according to the report.

Since 1998, fire staffing has increased 114 percent, from around 5,700 employees in 1998 to more than 12,000 in 2015. Over the same period, staffing levels for those dedicated to managing national forest lands has decreased by 39 percent – from about 18,000 in 1998 to fewer than 11,000 in 2015.

Reducing positions has hurt the agency’s ability to deliver work on the ground, including forest restoration and management, recreation, research, watershed protection, land conservation and other activities.

Although, 2016 was not as bad as 2015 in June officials thought that year could have been worse.

“We keep setting records we don’t want to see beat. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, over the last 10 years we’ve seen 16 of the most historically significant wildfires on record,” said U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said firefighting has gotten tougher due to the effects of climate change, chronic droughts and development within wildland-urban interface areas.

Climate change has led to fire seasons that are, on average, 78 days longer than they were in 1970 and, on average, the number of acres burned each year has doubled since 1980, according to the 2015 report.

The U.S. burns twice as many acres as it did three decades ago, the 2015 report states.

“Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century,” according to the report. “Increasing development in fire-prone areas also puts more stress on the Forest Service’s suppression efforts.”

By 2025, the report estimates that the cost of fighting fires could exceed $1.8 billion.

Spring wildfire outlook

Although, WNC’s peak fire season doesn’t typically occur until April, the U.S. Forest Service has already seen three significant fires since January costing the agency $1.5 million, and giving firefighters a short break between fall and spring fire seasons.

Since Jan. 1, about 6,270 acres have burned across WNC national forest with the largest fire burning nearly 6,000 acres in the Linville Gorge.

That trend is also reflected nationally as 2 million acres – an area larger than the state of Delaware – burned across the U.S. from Jan.1-March 17.

This number is roughly 10 times the average and also the most acres burned as of mid-March since 2006, spokeswoman Jessica Gardetto of the National Interagency Fire Center told USA Today.

Many of the blazes have been massive grass fires in Oklahoma and Kansas, which have both set records for number of acres burned in March, Gardetto said.

Looking ahead to the rest of the spring fire season, which typically lasts until June, it is expected to be normal or above normal for the Southeast as drought prevails, Dowd said.

Despite frequent precipitation in recent weeks, the Asheville Area Airport reports a deficit of 4 inches of rainfall for the year and several western counties in the state remain in a state of moderate to severe drought, according to the N.C. Drought Monitor, which is updated weekly. Compared to 2016, the Asheville Regional Airport was 10.17 inches below normal as of Tuesday.

Fire officials urge people to use extreme caution with outdoor equipment, to closely monitor and properly extinguish campfires, and to never park a vehicle over high brush as the exhaust system can start a fire.

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