Burning through money: The cost of Utah wildfires
Wildfire • The cost of fighting blazes in Utah has reached $47.1 million this year.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2012, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

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.

The third major cost is for supplies, equipment and wages of firefighters. Privately contracted firefighting crews, at a minimum, are citizens who only need to be trained for a week in firefighting school and are hired for the season. These hand crews of usually 20 members a piece are led by an individual and have variable costs and wages for their employees.

When a Hotshot crew — a highly experienced team with years of experience hired by the federal government — goes in to fight a wildfire they have a federal pay scale and can make hourly wages ranging anywhere from about $11 per hour for new seasonal employees up to $40 per hour for those who have been in the industry for a decade and are in upper management, according to the government pay scale.

If fires are uncontrolled, fire crews get hazard pay, which adds an additional 25 percent on top of their hourly or overtime pay. Since fires don't take a nap, 40-hour work weeks are a rarity and overtime pay becomes another factor. Sixteen-hour days are a normal occurrence on an uncontrolled fire.

When it comes to recouping suppression costs on human-caused fires from those who ignite them, it rarely happens.

O'Hanlon said attorneys will try to get those accused of causing a fire to pay, but the cost ultimatelyends up being borne bytaxpayers.

"You aren't going to get $2 million out of a homeowner," O'Hanlon said. "In most cases, [attorneys] typically have to go back to [the culprit's] home­owner insurance."

Bigelow, from the governor's budget office, said revenue "comes from federal taxes, or from taxes [residents] pay from state government."

But since so many agencies are involved in fighting a fire, it can take years to settle the costs.

In fact, the final bill for a fire that started during machine gun training at Camp Williams almost two years ago is just barely coming in, Bigelow said.

"The reality is that we are just now getting final numbers on [the Machine Gun Fire]; sometimes it will take a couple years to sort out," Bigelow said.

Bigelow said when this fire season is over officials will address how they will balance the budget in the next legislative session.

"The state will deal with it in a responsible and prudent manner," Bigelow said. "And do its best to minimize its impact on other state programs."

The state hasn't ever been in a position where it couldn't cover the cost. Bigelow said they may forgo appropriating money to some planned building funds and other items, but they won't raise taxes on residents to cover the cost and will still provide basic state services. The state has a fire suppression fund, but it is only big enough to cover small county fire expenses.

The cost could be much more if it weren't for the assistance of federal grants that offer financial help through the Disaster Relief Fund through Federal Emergency Management Agency to cover about 75 percent of eligible state and local suppression costs. The state has to pick up the remaining amount. These grants also help pay for firefighters' tools, food, supplies and other suppression- related costs.

"Certainly FEMA kicks in a lot of money," Bigelow said. "They pay a significant portion of these fires, especially as they occur on federal lands."

Cities and counties also pay on their own if the fireburns within their boundaries.

In an attempt to limit costs, the governor only sends the Utah National Guard to help if local resources are tapped out and local entitiesrequest it, according to Gov. Gary Herbert's spokeswoman Ally Isom.

She said when local emergency responders say they need more help quickly, the governor will deploy the Guard.

In the case of the Rose Crest Fire in Herriman and Quail Fire in Alpine, those were "an immediate decision," Isom said, because the fire was close to people and homes.

But the Wood Hollow Fire, which killed one person and destroyed 52 homes and 108 outbuildings in Sanpete County, did not receive support from the Utah National Guard because the Governor's Office "didn't receive a request for the Guard there."

In all cases, Isom said, they defer the decision for additional help to the local agencies.

Suppression costs are just one piece of the pie when it comes to wildland fires. Reclaiming the land costs millions more.

Conservation crews have to go back and reclaim or reseed areas to prevent the possibility of mudslides or debris flows.

For example, while the Milford Flat Fire cost $5 million in firefighting costs, the price tag for seeding and rehabilitation of that 363,000-acre area cost about three times more. It took 18 months to complete the reclamation and cost $17 million. The state's share of that rehab was only $4.5 million because the majority of reclamation was on federal and agricultural land.

cimaron@sltrib.com

Twitter: @CimCity