The cost of saving money on wildfire suppression

Myrtle Fire
Myrtle Fire north of Hot Springs, SD, July 19, 2012 Photo by Bill Gabbert

Maintaining a wildfire suppression infrastructure is expensive, but as the saying goes, “you can pay me now or pay me later”. Wildfires are going to occur, regardless of the number of fire suppression resources that are funded by the government. An adequate number of firefighters on the ground and in the air can implement a prescription for keeping new fires from becoming megafires:

Rapid initial attack with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.

The current paradigm of cascading federal budget cuts for fire suppression has reduced the capability of putting out wildfires while they are small. An aggressive initial attack on an emerging fire may cost $10,000, or $50,000, or even $75,000. But when the fire is put out quickly, the firefighters become available to attack the next fire with overwhelming force, rather than being tied up on a huge fire that may take six weeks to wrap up.

And that huge fire may cost $30 million to $50 million to suppress.

Suppression costs of seven fires in 2012:

  • Mustang Complex, Idaho, $38 million
  • High Park, Colorado, $38 million
  • Chips, California, $54 million
  • Wenatchee Complex, Washington, $32 million
  • Bagley, California, $37 million
  • North Pass, California, $30 million
  • Trinity Ridge, Idaho, $41 million

But the suppression costs can pale in comparison to the property damage for an urban interface fire. In 2012 insurance companies in Colorado paid an estimated $450 million for damage caused by two wildfires, primarily for structures that burned.

Estimated costs to insurers for property damage on wildfires:

  • 2012, Waldo Canyon Fire, Colorado, $353 million
  • 2012 High Park Fire, Colorado, $97 million
  • 2010, Fourmile Canyon Fire, Colorado, $224 million
  • 2007, Witch Fire, California, $1.142 billion
  • 2003, Old Fire, California, $1.141 billion
  • 2003, Cedar Fire, California, $1.240 billion
  • 1991, Oakland Hills Fire, California, $2.687 billion

In 2012, according to the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, wildfires in the state destroyed more than 648 structures, killed six people, burned more than 384,000 acres and caused at least $538 million in property losses

Fighting fire on the cheap can be very expensive in lost lives, megafires, and property damage. Investing money up front to reduce the number of megafires can save money. The current strategy of fewer federal firefighters and large air tankers is not working. In the decade of the 1990s the average size of a wildfire in the lower 49 states was 30 acres. In the three years of the present decade the average size is 93 acres. In 2012 almost half of the time when wildland firefighters requested an air tanker to help slow down a wildfire, the call went unanswered because none were available.

We need to restore the initial attack capability that we had in the 1990s. More firefighters and large air tankers can help to keep fires small. In 2002 the federal government had 44 large air tankers on exclusive use contracts. By 2012 the fleet had atrophied to nine. Some wildfire experts recommend that we need 30, 40, or even 50. The U.S. Forest Service has been trying to contract for approximately seven additional “next generation” air tankers, bringing the total up to 16. The newer aircraft would be turbine-powered, be able to cruise at 300 knots (345 mph), and preferably have a capacity of 3,000 to 5,000 gallons of retardant. The USFS issued the solicitation 1 year, 3 months, and 2 days ago, but no contracts have been awarded.

The USFS-funded RAND air tanker study found that a 3,000-gallon air tanker costs approximately $7.1 million a year without the costs of retardant. In fiscal year 2010 the USFS spent $10.3 million on retardant. Using these figures, a fleet of 30 large air tankers for a year would cost about the same as the property damage and suppression of one large urban interface fire, the 2010 Fourmile Canyon Fire near Boulder, Colorado — or about one-fifth of the property damage on the 2003 Cedar fire in California.

Firefighters on the ground and in the air will never put out every fire while they are small, and air tankers alone can’t do it either. Aircraft don’t put out fires — at best they can slow them down temporarily, allowing firefighters on the ground to stop the spread. Going forward we need a complete palette of resources, a tool box of complementary weapons, each with their niche, working together.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

9 thoughts on “The cost of saving money on wildfire suppression”

  1. Too often resources are thrown at wild fires with no thought of good strategies or tactics, aggressive initial attack works most of the time only if applied right, fire managers need to learn how to develop good strategies and appropriate tactics.

  2. Greetings and well wishes!

    Over the last 20 years I have been researching and developing ecological or “green” solutions to a wide range of problems we face today. About a decade ago, an idea began forming on how to better confront the issues of wildfires. It seemed to me for a long time that the way we confront open fire was a bit arcane, but surely the great minds of the world were onto a solution.

    My father spent a few years as a volunteer fireman in our town and also had a stint as an EMT, public and private. He was good enough to be asked to join an ariel rescue crew. Naturally I joined in the junior volunteer cadet program and gained good knowledge in my teen years. Spending time watching fire and my father and his comrades fight it. I became aware of the raw power and fine nuances of it. Realizing it for myself was enough, but of course at times there were close calls to show me the diligence of attention you must show fire. Someone we knew well was once burned badly in an accident. My fathers best friend was lost to a house-fire and i guess thinking back on it, his death may be the seed which has brought me along this journey.

    Today, so long after my thoughts of a solution began, I see that the current path of wildfire suppression is not improving so I must speak up and be heard on this topic.

    My intentions have been to include sustainable raw materials any way possible into our lives. From everyday things like food, clothing and shelter, to more exciting things like automobiles, space-travel and high technology. Being inspired by people like Henry ford, who made a car of vegetable plastic and released it to the public in 1941. I know that great things are possible.

    Now is the time to realize the possibilities of a revolutionary way to manage wildfire and other open fire situations. Using currently available resources and technologies, I know we can upgrade our fire management systems and step out of the dark ages.

    I have looked recently into the new ways and theories of wildfire management, so I know what the trend and thinking is. What is needed now is to simply bring together ideas and the appropriate materials and achieve a more viable solution.

    I would like to spearhead a project do just this. I do have the revolutionary ideas I speak of. I need funding to test my ideas and bring them to life. Of course a company venturing into this has to potential to capitalize very well, but the overall benefits to people and environment are unmeasurable when you factor in other benefits.

    Feel free to contact me to discuss this further.
    Jeremy, 213.572.7351

  3. Great post MR Mike G!!!!!

    I would say common sense and good judgement are sorely lacking in two arenas:

    Politicians who promise more than they can deliver

    Leaders at ALL the land management agencies that have promised more than they could deliver

    Politicians that promised aircraft even before thet AF really released any of them (spell McCain)

    Leaders that promise every year that a new airtanker study is “gonna” get em aeroplanes!! (spell C130J and C27J) and promise we are going to keep em small (fires)…….property losses, human losses, aircraft losses……SMALL? Tell that one to plenty of the GP whose houses have burned whether lived in the WUI or not. Or even Rx burns that left the” reservation” due to not being able to see next days forecasts………

    Politicians who don’t get it overall
    Leaders at the land management agencies that don’t get it overall.

    Politicians taking crapshoots the land management agency budget
    Leaders at the land management agencies taking crapshoots and not “manning up” to a number of budgetary issues.

    I would venture to say while we can blame alllllllll the politicians, there are verrrrry maaaaaany well paid LMA “leaders” that deserve a bit of the sharp tongue, overall, especially in the aviation world, that could use a dose of reality in today’s world……..

  4. Shane, Every tanker pilot knows they and the airplane do not put out the fires and realizes they are for the folks on the ground, period. It’s other folks not in the know who think differently.

  5. A number of good points on initial attack and aviation resources. It would be great to have lots of initial attack resources but under the current budget constraints it is going to be hard to make happen. It’s time that communities, insurance companies and property owners team up to take active pre-fire actions to cut fire losses. (I know some have done this allready).

    Since common sense and good judgement seem to be in short supply in Washington and some state captiols it’s upto citizens to act on their own to protect them-selves.

  6. I agree with your analysis Bill. It does take a certain level of resources to catch fires early and avoid all the attendant costs that may result from not having those resources available.
    I suspect you are not simply screaming into the wilderness…so how do we get there? How do we fund those needed priorities?
    A couple of principles must guide us:
    -Politicians over time have promised much more to everyone than they can ever deliver.
    -The country is broke. Few Americans who pay income taxes think that increasing them is a valid option.
    -There is a considerable amount of waste inherent in government operations. This waste includes duplication of services, fraud, poor decision-making, lack of oversight and any number of other causes probably.
    The current political climate precludes working together because people are spending their time in denial and finger-pointing.
    Where do we start so that we can work to the desired conclusion?

  7. Bill,
    I agree that aggressive initial attack with air and ground resources is the best way to keep fires small. We can debate later as to whether this is a good outcome, but either way I am glad to see someone on this website acknowledge that air tankers alone don’t put out fires. That being said, we as firefighter and managers need to be more judicious in our use of resources. To go back to the days of blank checks for fires, not that we have left them, would be foolish. The amount of money spent on a fire needs to be weighed against the resources at risk. If I am in 30 miles outside of Elko I probably don’t need air tankers. I would like to have them, but don’t need them. I realize this easier said than done, but money does not grow on trees. It gets robbed from fisheries, wildlife, and recreation. The very resources we claim to be protecting. I think it will also lead to a better use of firefighters lives. Everyone is currently spun up about the sequester, but lets be honest. We, federal fire organizations, have become ridiculously bloated and top heavy. The cuts, if any, will be to seasonal and field going personnel. The regional and national office will not be touched. Also, I am pretty sure the increase in fire size has to do with a continued fuel build-up in our forests and the climate of the country becoming drier and hotter. The 90’s were one of the wettest periods in the Western US.

  8. Bill – your thoughts are right on. They are logical, make sense, and work…so DC will never accept that, since the boneheads up there DON’T make sense or work (either party right now…).

  9. “Firefighters on the ground and in the air will never put out every fire while they are small, and air tankers alone can’t do it either. Going forward we need a complete palette of resources, a tool box full of complementary weapons, each with their niche, working together.”

    This is what we said at the first Blue Ribbon panel.

    Your numbers and logic really make sense, Bill. Too bad this wisdom escapes so many. Keep at it, it may get through someday.


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