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.