Saving West from fires carries big tab

Cost of squelching wilderness blazes may soon exceed budget for the whole season.

At the height of the Hayman Fire, when wind drove the flames toward the Denver suburbs, pilots dumped planeload after planeload of fire-snuffing slurry. The price: $8,000 per drop.

Now, thanks in part to those costly plane runs, the fire is contained, with remnant swirls of wood smoke wisping just over the first of the ridge Rockies near metropolitan Denver.

But as firefighters break camp, a different kind of fire-related drama is beginning: Paying for what could become the most expensive fire season ever.

The tab for fighting the Hayman Fire alone exceeded $1 million a day as the blazing inferno ripped through 138,000 acres of woodlands in a nearly month-long burn.

Multiply those costs – the fire season stretches through fall, and as of early July some two dozen big blazes were active in nine western states – and it becomes clear that wildfires are suppressed not only by airplane-drops and crews with shovels, but also by a deluge of taxpayer money.

Politicians won't shut off the money spigot if fire crews go over budget. But as costs rise, so are official efforts to keep them in check.

In fact, while fire budgets have often been viewed by critics as blank checks from taxpayers, frontline officials say that refinements in accountability have increased over the years to the point of minutiae.

From the amount of nitrogen allowed in flame retardant down to the portions of bread that firefighters eat, there are government specifications that apply to almost every aspect of battling wildfire.

Such efforts, though, can go only so far. Costs are ultimately determined by the scope of the wildfires themselves, and this year has started off big.

The US Forest Service, a branch of the Agriculture Department, is warning that it could soon exhaust the $385 million earmarked to fight wildfires this year. Officials from five land-management agencies at the Interior Department also believe they may burn through their $170 million fire budget by the end of July. Then the government will start issuing IOUs ultimately to be reconciled by Congress.

The final total for the year, experts figure, could top $1 billion.

"Although the budgeted money runs out, it doesn't mean we stop fighting fires. We never stop," says Andy Smith, chief of budget and evaluation at the National Interagency Fire Center.

The costs begin with feeding, equipping, and paying a firefighting force that, this year, is 18,000 strong.

But other expenses are, literally, sky high.

The aerial assemblage this year of nearly 50 bombers to drop flame retardant, plus transport carriers and 400 helicopters, swells expenses. But the aerial armada is also seen as indispensable.

"Aviation is the biggest cost driver," Smith says. "But without it, we're not accomplishing much."

The payback is obvious in cases like the Hayman Fire, fought largely in the Pike National Forest. Current estimates put the blaze's cost at more than $30 million. Another $25 million is anticipated to shore up and replant scorched hillsides. But, the investment is considered a bargain, given the value of the property saved – even though 133 homes and hundreds of other structures did burn.

Busy Boise warehouse

In Boise, Idaho, Linda Bass with the Bureau of Land Management oversees the largest of 11 federal firefighting equipment warehouses in the US, with over $15 million in inventory. Recently, the so-called Great Basin Area Fire Cache lent a hand when resources in Colorado and Arizona became stretched.

During the weeks ahead, as fire risks shift into the northern Rockies, Pacific Northwest, and interior grasslands of Nevada and Idaho, Ms. Bass will be in the thick of coordinating strategic responses. Never in recent memory, she says, has the demand on her resources been at peak levels so early in the summer.

A Shakespeare of fire supplies?

Bass thinks of herself as the stage manager of an epic play, whose presence is never revealed to audiences watching the drama unfold, but who keeps the production operating behind the scenes.

"If something goes wrong on a fire, we work hard to make sure the problem isn't ever caused by lack of supplies," she says. "We're one of the few things that never is allowed to break."

Besides the federal warehouses, there are several "mobile cache vans" strategically placed in key geographic regions, each loaded with $75,000 worth of essential tools and provisions to sustain 250 firefighters for several days before reinforcements arrive.

On top of that, Congress has mandated that land-management agencies improve their readiness capabilities, as growing numbers of constituents build homes in fire-prone areas.

In 2000, 1,413 engines, 65 air tankers, and 66 elite ground and smoke-jumper units were available for duty. The goal this year is to have 2,291 engines, (many rented out from local fire departments for thousands of dollars), 77 air tankers, and 87 elite crews for large fires.

The federal government puts many service contracts out for bid, stirring intense competition between private companies specializing in firefighting gear, meals, and even the hauling of drinking water.

Every enlistee receives a standard uniform package consisting of two pairs of green, fire resistant pants at $60 each; two yellow, button-down, long-sleeved shirts at $45 apiece; a hard hat ($15); goggles ($10); an emergency fire shelter, known in firefighting parlance as a "shake and bake" ($45); and leather gloves ($12 a pair).

Items often tacked on range from sleeping bags ($35) to "McClouds," tools used for brush-clearing ($50). In all, the outfitting bill exceeds $1,500 per firefighter, not including wages that can reach $15,000 in a busy summer.

In fire camp, caterers generally charge between $10 and $20 per meal – with the official federal Blue Book specifying bread slices no smaller than 1.5-ounces to ensure adequate nutrition.

"It's when aviation assets are brought into play that the costs of fighting fires really gets cranked sky high," Bass notes.

Lease a plane for $500,000

Many of the aircraft are owned by private contractors whose services are acquired on retainer at the beginning of each fire season. Hiring an air tanker can cost $200,000 to $500,000 per aircraft as a retainer for the season; single-engine aircraft command $75,000 to $150,000; and helicopters run $100,000 to $300,000. Moreover, once pilots start flying missions, the aircraft owners earn additional fees ranging from hundreds to thousands of dollars per hour.

In late June, air drops of retardant or water over Arizona and Colorado were costing the Forest Service about $10 million a day, while the Interior Department was spending $1.8 million more.

While the aircraft costs are expenses that cannot be recovered, Bass says the fire caches get equipment back when ground-based firefighters go home.

At the end of the year, the caches send each other lists of items they have in abundance or in short supply, a ritual that Bass says is like trying to put a gigantic jigsaw puzzle together again.

"Generally, 85 percent of what we send out into the field comes back, gets spruced up, and can be used again," she says. "People complain about waste in government, but I consider our shop to be a good model of efficiency."

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