The increasing costs of wildfires

costs wildland fires
Source: National Interagency Fire Center

Beginning in 2000 the costs of suppressing wildland fires suddenly got more expensive, as you can see from the chart.

One fire this year that is still going strong has added over $208 million to the total for this year, according to the September 20 national situation report.

The Soberanes Fire on the central coast of California south of Monterey has been burning since July 22. New evacuations were ordered Monday for this fire that has blackened more than 121,000 acres of brush, grass, timber, and large quantities of poison oak. The current uncontained fire perimeter is 95 miles. Fire managers expect they will have  191 miles of fireline by the time it is over.
dollar sign
It is very difficult to determine the exact costs of suppressing large wildfires. Many months can pass before most of the bills come in, get approved, and are paid. Costs are often shared among multiple agencies, making it even more complex to come up with one figure. And if you want to compare the historical costs of individual large fires, you have to decide which formula to use while adjusting for inflation.

Not deterred by these difficulties, the Associated Press published an article yesterday reporting that the costs of suppressing the Soberanes Fire is the largest ever spent on one fire.

BIG SUR, Calif. (AP) — A wildfire burning for nearly two months on California’s scenic Big Sur coast has surpassed $200 million in firefighting costs, becoming the costliest to fight in U.S. history, according to data released Monday.

The fire has cost $206.7 million to fight so far, the National Interagency Fire Center said in a report. And with the blaze at only 67 percent containment, there could be weeks left before the firefight is done.

That puts it well past the previous high of $165 million established by a blaze that burned in California and Oregon in 2002. [From Bill: probably the Biscuit Fire.]

The figure does not include the actual damages done by the fire like destroyed homes, only the costs of extinguishing and containing it.

It also is not adjusted for inflation, which would put the 2002 fire and others ahead of it.

The cost is mostly attributable to the long duration of the fire, and the need to pay thousands of firefighters for their daily work, the U.S. Forest Service said. The daily costs got as high as $8 million at the fire’s peak, though they’ve settled at closer to $2 million as it has calmed…

The AP was a little vague about where they got their data.

But as they said, these figures only include the actual costs of suppressing the fires. Often the indirect costs can exceed the cost of putting it out. These can include temporary housing while evacuated, lost wages, rebuilding structures, declining retail sales at nearby communities, reduced tourism, lower sales tax receipts, medical treatments for breathing smoky air, and repairing the damaged land.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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8 thoughts on “The increasing costs of wildfires”

  1. Its on the Los Padres N.F. its suppose to burn forever or until mother nature intervenes. Why get in a hurry to put the thing out? I like the smoke drifting all the way to the Sierra Nevada’s. If you have (fought ?) fire on the L.P. you know exactly what I’m talking about!

  2. VLATs…Air/SkyCranes…big dozers…big water wagons…thousands of personnel…they all cost money. 15-20 years ago if a Bell 212 was called to a fire it was a “big deal”…now they call a VLAT for 50 acre fires in the middle of nowhere. They used to use a Bell 206 or MD500 for recon…now, I’ve seen a S-61 being used for recon.

  3. I worked Helitack on the Wellman Fire on the LPNF in 1966. We had 21 helicopters, and it was widely reported as the 1st USFS wildfire that had suppression costs above $1 Million. Of course, making $1.93 per hour with no OT or HP, and eating old C-rats, it’s hard to run up big costs!

  4. I started working fires in the early 70’s. Aircraft and Air Tankers have gotten more expensive. Tour of duty shortened to 14 days causing moving crews and overhead 1/3 more than in the past. Fire camps improving services to firefighters (laundry, better caterer services, medical, etc), Computers for Planning and Finance, GIS mapping for Plan Section, all add to the increasing cost of fires. Cost of fuel is higher, food is higher, wages are higher.

    It is no surprise that the cost of a large fire can hit $1mill and up in a heartbeat.

  5. You made 1.93? I only made 1.65……:) For sure things have increased, but I also think that all the extra rules and regulations, length of duty limits, and the push from the Fed to use their resources first as opposed to local government hasn’t always presented the best cost savings. I also wonder how much the VIPR program has or has not impacted costs. In the old days, the Fed had a rate they they would pay for a specific type of equipment, and if you wanted to go to fires, that is what you worked for. Now with fewer contractors, and people quoting higher rates and a busier season……just sayin’. Plus, it is unbelievable to me what folks miles away from the fire file claims for and get paid!

  6. Don’t forget that 30+ years ago they “wanted” to get the fire out. Today they kick them around for weeks, re-light them multiple times, and just milk the OT for as long as possible.

    My Grandpa told me when he was working at the Mill, they would all get pulled out of the Mill and sent to a fire then get paid LESS then they would normally make so they had incentive to “put the fire out” and go back to making more money.

    Hard to have much incentive to put the fires out when the majority of guys are making $600+ a day.

    Just sayin…

    1. Adam – as a career wildland firefighter, and a member of Type 1 and Type 2 IMTs (we called them “Fire Teams” before ICS) for more than 25 years, I’m personally and professionally insulted, and very frankly pissed off, by the comments you made in your last post.
      You claim, with out any proof, that firefighters and IMT folks :”kick them around”; then you allege that they “relight them many times”; you say that “the majority of the guys make $600 per day”; and that everyone “milks the OT for as long as possible”.
      It’s time to call BS to your statements. First, aside from a few folks nationally (less than 30), being on an IMT is not a full time job in the Federal Service or in most States; we have lives and families outside of going on major fires, and prolonging our absence from the folks we love, especially in the summers when our kids are/were out of school is not part of the plan. Next, with all of the local and media interest in large fires, no IMT could “kick them around” with out intense public scrutiny even if they wanted too. You think that the “majority make $600 per day”? Do the math: A GS-4 seasonal firefighter (like hand crews, engines crews, Heli-rappelers, etc) make make $12.10/hour. Do the math, even with HP and OT on a 16 hour day equals less than $350 per day.
      The Donald may avoid Fact Checking, but you don’t get that luxury, at least from me: it’s time to “Put Up or Shut Up.”
      Let’s have specific fire names, Incident Management Teams and the listing of all those “majority” of firefighters that are making $600 per day. Which fires were “re-lighted” to keep the OT flowing. Which fires were “kicked around” outside of Agency Policy to allow some fires to burn while achieving resource objectives?
      Just askin’.

  7. I agree with you Dick. Adam32 post was insulting. I spent 30 years in wildland fire. Was on aInterregional crew (Hot shots crews now), Type I and Type 2 overhead teams and eventually District and State level fire management for a federal agency.

    Never participated in or allowed fire teams to “kick around” a fire to max out a pay out.

    There are many reasons why fire are more expensive today. Environmental factors are different than 30+ years ago that can make fires more difficult to contain/control. Costs for equipment have gone up. Aircraft costs are much higher than in the past. Rules and Regs for todays fire managers is not the same as utilizing the “Mill” employees of the 1930-40’s.

    Firefighters and Fire Managers I worked with through out the years were very professional and proud of the work they do.

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