The true cost of wildfire

White Draw Fire, June 29, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Firefighters arrive at the White Draw Fire near Edgemont, SD, June 29, 2012. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A conference in Glenwood Springs, Colorado on Wednesday and Thursday of this week explored a topic that does not make the news very often. It was titled The True Cost of Wildfire.

Usually the costs we hear associated with wildfires are what firefighters run up during the suppression phase. The National Incident Management Situation Report provides those daily for most ongoing large fires.

But other costs may be many times that of just suppression, and can include structures burned, crops and pastures ruined, economic losses from decreased tourism, medical treatment for the effects of smoke, salaries of law enforcement and highway maintenance personnel, counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, costs incurred by evacuees, infrastructure shutdowns, rehab of denuded slopes, flood and debris flow prevention, and repairing damage to reservoirs filled with silt.

And of course we can’t put a monetary value on the lives that are lost in wildfires. In Colorado alone, fires since 2000 have killed 8 residents and 12 firefighters.

The total cost of a wildfire can be mitigated by fire-adaptive communities, hazard fuel mitigation, fire prevention campaigns, and prompt and aggressive initial attack of new fires with overwhelming force by ground and air resources. Investments in these areas can save large sums of money. And, it can save lives, something we don’t hear about very often when it comes to wildfire prevention and mitigation; or spending money on adequate fire suppression resources.

Below are some excerpts from a report on the conference that appeared in the Grand Junction Sentinel:

[Fire ecologist Robert] Gray said the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire in New Mexico ended up having a total estimated cost of $906 million, of which suppression accounted for only 3 percent.

Creede Mayor Eric Grossman said the [West Fork Complex] in the vicinity of that town last summer didn’t damage one structure other than a pumphouse. But the damage to its tourism-based economy was immense.

“We’re a three-, four-month (seasonal tourism) economy and once that fire started everybody left, and rightfully so, but the problem was they didn’t come back,” he said.

A lot of the consequences can play out over years or even decades, Gray said.

He cited a damaging wildfire in Slave Lake, in Alberta, Canada, where post-traumatic stress disorder in children didn’t surface until a year afterward. Yet thanks to the damage to homes from the fire there were fewer medical professionals still available in the town to treat them.

“You’re dealing with a grieving process” in the case of landowners who have lost homes, said Carol Ekarius, who as executive director of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte has dealt with watershed and other issues in the wake of the 2002 Hayman Fire and other Front Range fires.

The Hayman Fire was well over 100,000 acres in size and Ekarius has estimated its total costs at more than $2,000 an acre. That’s partly due to denuded slopes that were vulnerable to flooding, led to silt getting in reservoirs and required rehabilitation work.

“With big fires always come big floods and big debris flows,” Ekarius said.

Gray said measures such as mitigating fire danger through more forest thinning can reduce the risks. The 2013 Rim Fire in California caused $1.8 billion in environmental and property damage, or $7,800 an acre, he said.

“We can do an awful lot of treatment at $7,800 an acre and actually save money,” he said.

Bill Hahnenberg, who has served as incident commander on several fires, said many destructive fires are human-caused because humans live in the wildland-urban interface.

“That’s why I think we should maybe pay more attention to fire prevention,” he said.

Just how large the potential consequences of fire can be was demonstrated in Glenwood Springs’ Coal Seam Fire. In that case the incident commander was close to evacuating the entire town, Hahnenberg said.

“How would that play (out)?” he said. “I’m not just picking on Glenwood, it’s a question for many communities. How would you do that?”

He suggested it’s a scenario communities would do well to prepare for in advance.

The chart below from EcoWest.org shows that federal spending per wildfire has exceeded $100,000 on an annual basis several times since 2002. Since 2008 the cost per acre has varied between $500 and $1,000. These numbers do not include most of the other associated costs we listed above. (click on the chart to see a larger version)

Cost per wildfire acre

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Iowa prescribed fire escapes, burns private property

Burned property in Iowa

Glen Dale Geiger examines his property that burned during an escaped prescribed fire in Iowa. Photo from KCRG.

A prescribed fire conducted by the Iowa Department of Natural Resources escaped on April 12 and burned onto three nearby properties. One of the victims was Glen Dale Geiger who lost three structures containing farm equipment and his pride and joy, a 1960 convertible that burned exactly 54 years to the day after he bought it. Mr. Geiger said other equipment lost included, “My corn picker, corn planter, my baler, feed wagons, my other wagon sitting outside, my camper in the corn crib, snow blower, bicycles,”

At first the DNR said the National Weather Service gave them “the wrong forecast”, but they later backtracked from that, saying the DNR did not follow protocol in checking the weather for the site of the prescribed fire.

 
Thanks and a hat tip go out to Chip.

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The cost of prescribed fire in Oklahoma

Black lining on the Dillon Prescribed fire

Black lining on the Dillon Prescribed fire at Badlands National Park in South Dakota, October 10, 2002. NPS photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Noble Foundation kept track of the costs of conducting prescribed fires in 1996 on the Noble Foundation D. Joyce Coffey Resource and Demonstration Ranch west of Marietta, Oklahoma. A report they prepared also took into account the costs of burning on properties belonging to Terry Stuart Forst, a Noble Foundation cooperator. The lands have a variety of topographical features and plant communities from which to evaluate the costs and effects of prescribed fires.

The costs per acre listed below are from activities in 1996, so an adjustment will have to be made to consider them in current day dollars. According to The Inflation Calculator, the difference between 1996 dollars and 2013 costs is plus 46 to 67 percent.

  • Timber, Coffey Ranch: $4.64/acre
  • Grassland, Stuart Ranch: $0.23/acre
  • Timber/grassland, Stuart Ranch: $0.35/acre
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Rocky Chesser receives USFWS Fire Safety Award

Rocky Chesser, receives award

Rocky Chesser (center), Maintenance Supervisor at Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge receives the USFWS National Fire Safety Award for 2013 from John Segar, Chief, Branch of Fire Management (right), and U.S. Fish and Wildlife and Service Southeast Regional Director Cindy Dohner (left). USFWS photo.

The following information was released by John Segar, Chief, Branch of Fire Management for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service:

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“I am very proud to announce that Rocky Chesser from Okefenokee NWR was awarded the Service’s first Annual Fire Safety Award. Rocky is being recognized for his consistent leadership, professionalism, longstanding safety record, and significant contributions to the Okefenokee Wildlife Refuge Fire Management Program. Specifically:

  • During the Honey Prairie Fire, Rocky was engaged for the entire year, from the first day to the last in roles from Resource Advisor to Incident Commander. During this marathon incident Rocky provided calm, consistent leadership and was able to maintain fire safety from early initial attack to large scale management roles as the fire progressed.
  • Rocky’s proactive approach prior to the fire working with the GOAL partners and the Georgia Forestry Commission (GFC) were key to assuring the refuge was prepared for supporting such a large scale fire event.
  • Rocky was instrumental in coordinating large scale rehab projects such as hazardous tree removal project of approximately 50 miles of canoe and boating trails in the wilderness. He worked with contractors in promoting a safety culture and assured that all safety standards were maintained.
  • Rocky is one of the region’s most knowledgeable heavy equipment instructors and hosts annual training. He is the “go to expert” on assuring that equipment meets all safety standards and is ready for safe fire operations. When the refuge fire program underwent a major transition and the district FMO position was moved off site, Rocky stepped up more than ever to keep the fire program running strong and safe. His leadership, positive attitude, and commitment to safety helped the program adapt well through this transition.
  • Rocky also coordinates annual Fire Refresher Training between state, private, and federal firefighters and equipment operators in the Okefenokee area.”

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You may remember the Honey Prairie Fire. Started by a lightning strike, it burned 309,200 acres between April 30, 2011 and April 16, 2012 in southern Georgia and northern Florida. In one six-day period in May, 2011 it grew by 81,000 acres.

Honey Prairie Fire April 29

Honey Prairie Fire May 1, 2011, one day after it started. USF&WS photo.

Firefighters conducting firing operations

Firefighters conducting firing operations on the Honey Prairie Fire. USFWS photo.

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Throwback Thursday, April 17, 2014

Six years ago, between April 13 and 19, 2008, visitors to Wildfire Today were reading these articles:

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Wildfire briefing, April 16, 2014

Idaho sues over Steep Corner Fire

The state of Idaho has filed a lawsuit to recover the costs they incurred while suppressing the 2012 Steep Corner Fire near Orofino, Idaho. The suit claims that a timber company and its contractor did not meet U.S. Forest Service standards. It names Potlatch Land and Lumber, Potlatch Forest Holdings, Clearwater Paper Corp., Potlatch Corp., and DABCO Inc., a Kamiah-based logging contractor.

A firefighter, Ann Veseth, in her second season working as a firefighter for the USFS, was killed when she was struck by a falling 150-foot tall fire-weakened green cedar tree. The tree fell on its own and was 13 inches in diameter where it struck her.

Nebraska to join a fire compact

If the governor of Nebraska signs a bill approved by the legislature, the state will become a member of the Great Plains Interstate Compact, making it easier to share firefighting resources with Colorado, Wyoming and the Dakotas.

UPDATE, April 18, 2014Gov. Dave Heineman announced that he signed the bill.

Next-generation 911

The next generation of 911 could include live video and photographs which could be sent to first responders.

From Governing.com:

On May 1, 2010, a terrorist attack in New York City’s Times Square was thwarted when street vendors noticed smoke coming from a vehicle in which a homemade bomb had failed to explode. Imagine if those street vendors could have used their cellphones to send pictures or video of the vehicle and its license plate to a 911 call center. What if the 911 center could then push that data to first responders and police to get the location from GIS and buildings visual in the photos?

“They could really capture the dynamics of the event,” said Brian Fontes, executive director of the National Emergency Number Association (NENA). “That is what I call an information-rich 911 call, which will be supported in a next-generation 911 system…

Wildfire activity in British Columbia

From cbc.ca:

Fire officials are keeping a close eye on wildfires in the interior. There have been twice the average number of fires so far this year in the Kamloops Fire centre. Monday, five homes were put on evacuation alert in Bridge River near Lillooet. Nearly two dozen firefighters were sent to the area. Two fires are also being fought in the Okanagan. Kayla Pepper is an information officer with the Kamloops Fire Centre. She says it is dry and there has been a fair amount of wind throughout the Interior and Okanagan. She says there have already been 34 wildfires in the region. Pepper says so far, it’s too early to predict how active wildfires will be this year.

National Parks with web pages devoted to wildland fire

The National Park Service has a web page that lists dozens of Parks that have web pages devoted to their unique wildland fire programs. Below is a screen shot of a portion of the page.

NPS park fire programs

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