Never mind the ear plugs and duct tape available in the Parachute camp’s supplies section on that early August day, and take that contracted food service as one example. Even said she received a food invoice for $7,000 for the previous day. She said a typical daily bill for two hot meals and a sack lunch that provide firefighters with the 6,000 calories a day needed for toiling long hours on the fire line can run close to $15,000, depending on the number of personnel on the fire.
Such expenses quickly add up. Last year, wildland firefighting cost federal agencies a record $2.9 billion, and the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management currently are on a pace this year to potentially exceed what they spent in 2017 for firefighting.
The interagency Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center estimates that as of Wednesday, 60 large fires in Colorado this year had cost $144,774,523.61. That’s for fires that covered 431,606 acres as of that day, and the price tag is expected to increase as active fires keep burning and as other costs tied to all the fires are all eventually tallied.
Altogether, through Monday, the center had received reports of 1,585 wildfires in Colorado so far this year, covering 438,307 acres. Center spokesman Larry Helmerick said that tally may not include a number of fires not yet reported to the center by the state and counties.
In 2012, another bad year for wildfires in Colorado, 426,403 acres burned in the state. In 2002, 619,000 acres burned.
COSTLY ‘AIR SHOW’
Figuring mightily into firefighting price tags is aerial firefighting.
“This one’s pretty much an air show,” Even said in reference to the amount of helicopters and airplanes that were being used to drop water and retardant on the Cache Creek Fire as of early August. She said that it was likely racking up $200,000 or more in aerial firefighting costs per day, noting that the cost of retardant alone was going for $2.71 a gallon.
Two hundred thousand dollars here. Two hundred thousand dollars there. Before you know it, you’re talking real money.
As of Friday, the 2,520-acre Cache Creek Fire — which earlier this month had calmed down enough that the Rocky Mountain Blue management team had turned it over to a local management team, but more recently has flared up again — had a price tag of $4.9 million.
Three Western Slope fires are among the five-costliest in the state so far this year.
The 54,000-acre 416 Fire in the Durango area is the most expensive, at nearly $40 million, and the 12,600-acre Lake Christine Fire near Basalt has cost $17 million.
Those fires are pretty well tamed, but the still-growing Bull Draw Fire northwest of Nucla had a price tag of $6.6 million as of Friday, when its acreage stood at 27,320.
Putting a total price on the costs of wildfire firefighting isn’t a simple matter in part because the costs can be borne among multiple agencies. Cost-sharing agreements factor in things such as what proportions of a fire burn on federal, private or other land.
Some of the fire expenses are borne locally. Earlier this month, Garfield County commissioners authorized the Sheriff’s Office to spend contingency funds for what are expected to be $250,000 in county costs for a fire this year in the area of the Oak Meadows rural neighborhood outside Glenwood Springs. That fire’s total costs are estimated at $450,000.
THE STATE’S ROLE
Caley Fisher, spokeswoman for the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control, said that generally in the case of a fire that starts on private land, once it exceeds the capabilities of local responders, state assistance can be requested. If the state determines the fire is eligible for state responsibility, it assumes the costs, with ongoing involvement from local and county partners.
A number of state-level funding streams exist to help absorb costs. Forty-three of the county’s 64 counties voluntarily participate in contributing to an emergency fire fund, based on a formula considering their nonfederal forested acres and property tax valuation.
Resource mobilization funding exists to help local agencies during emerging fires, and a wildfire emergency response fund can be tapped through the governor’s office.
Fires qualifying as major disasters can tap Federal Emergency Management Agency reimbursement for up to 75 percent of eligible costs, if funding is requested while the fire is still burning.
The state also provides other assistance such as training, technical support, mutual aid equipment and aerial fire-detection and mapping flights.
Fisher said that for the state, this year is on pace to rival other major wildfire years such as 2002 and 2012 in terms of state-responsibility fires, acres burned and suppression costs.
She said that as of Monday, her agency has spent about $39 million on firefighting so far this year.
“There’s a lot of different variables that play into that … so it could be more,” she said.
She said that through the multitude of available funding streams, her agency and the governor’s office will be there to support local-level responders. But she said there is a need for more state funding to help fight fires and pay for work such as vegetation treatments to reduce fire risk and helping homeowners reduce the threat from wildfires.
A $3 BILLION FEDERAL TAB
Funding challenges also have bedeviled national agencies — most notably the Forest Service — that also would like to spend more on things such as prescribed fires and fuel mitigation, not to mention on nonfire agency programs, but have been increasingly spending on fighting fires instead.
Last year federal agencies spent nearly $3 billion fighting fires covering about 10 million acres, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Looking at data dating back to 1985, in only one other year, in 2015, did the agencies fight fires covering that much acreage, and the first time federal firefighting costs exceeded $1 billion was 2000.
Last year the Forest Service incurred a record $2.4 billion of the total federal firefighting cost. Agency spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said that as of Monday it has spent $1.8 billion this year.
The remaining $508,000 in federal firefighting costs last year was incurred by Department of Interior agencies. This year, Interior agencies so far have spent $338 million, the highest the department has spent at this point in any year, said Kari Cobb, a Bureau of Land Management spokeswoman at the National Interagency Fire Center. She said the BLM accounts for $223 million of that total.
Jones said fire seasons have grown larger, there have been more large wildfires, the average numbers of acres burned annually have grown and the number of homes in what’s known as the wildland urban interface has grown. Accordingly, firefighting funding has grown from 13 percent of the Forest Service budget in 1991 to 57 percent this year.
“That just leaves less and less money available for other programs,” said Scott Fitzwilliams, supervisor of the White River National Forest, which covers much of Colorado’s central mountain region.
He expects the firefighting costs on that forest this year to be somewhere in the $25 million to $30 million range, which he believes would be a record amount. The Forest Service will bear some of the costs associated with the Lake Christine Fire and with the Cabin Lake Fire in Rio Blanco County, which by Friday was nearly 6,000 acres in size and had racked up at least $4.3 million in costs.
Fitzwilliams has watched the toll firefighting costs have taken on the budget of the White River National Forest during his nine years as supervisor there. When he arrived, the forest’s appropriated funds and other funding totaled close to $30 million, and now the total is about half of that. Some of the drop is due to the end of some bark-beetle infestation work, but Fitzwilliams said the cost of firefighting is largely to blame.
‘FIRE BORROWING’ BURDEN
The impact has come as a result of what’s called “fire borrowing.” Jones said the Forest Service has historically determined its wildfire firefighting funding request each year based on the 10-year average of firefighting costs over the previous 10 years, adjusted for inflation.
Even with increases in that 10-year average, the agency’s costs have exceeded the average in all but three years since 2000. That has forced it to borrow funds from other forest programs to cover firefighting costs in some years, and in others to use money from unobligated sources, she said.
Fitzwilliams said fire borrowing in the Forest Service began for this fiscal year just this week, as the agency scrambles to make up for a projected shortfall of hundreds of millions of dollars.
He said fire borrowing has meant the White River National Forest has seen a steady erosion of funding for everything from seasonal rangers to road and campground maintenance and repairs. He’s thrilled that Congress acted this year to address the fire borrowing problem (see related story).
“That is going to be extremely helpful that we won’t have to go through this every year,” he said.
Randy Eardley, another BLM spokesman at the National Interagency Fire Center, said there has been fire borrowing at the Interior Department as well, but typically money borrowed from other accounts would be repaid in subsequent years, whereas the Forest Service has been borrowing year after year. He noted that Interior’s firefighting costs are a lot less than the Forest Service’s, which partly reflect that Forest Service fires typically burn in heavier fuels, for longer periods of time, and can be more complex to fight.
Eardley said the passage by Congress several years ago of what is called the FLAME (Federal Land Assistance, Management, and Enhancement) Act made something of a difference, reducing some of the fire borrowing by providing access to a separate account of firefighting funds after a certain level of spending was surpassed.
“But it didn’t really solve the problem,” he said.
Randi Spivak, director of the public lands program for the Center for Biological Diversity, said firefighting should occur to protect lives, but her group wants to make sure that federal agencies don’t receive a blank check for suppression and their activities are accountable and effective.
“There is some waste going on,” she said.
She said studies show retardant often is used in the wrong place, like in wilderness, or at the wrong time of day, sometimes with the goal of easing worries among the public and politicians even if it’s not effective.
“The Forest Service needs to start looking at this and spend those dollars more effectively,” she said.
Spivak believes it’s important to do more prescribed burning, let more naturally ignited fires burn where possible, put more focus on creating defensible space around homes, and have local governments take action to not allow homes to be built in dangerous, fire-prone areas.
Fitzwilliams agrees with the need to focus on residential development in wildland areas. He said another looming factor is a changing climate that is resulting in longer wildfire seasons, record temperatures and fuel dryness, and more extreme fire behaviors such as fires making downhill runs at night, like when the Lake Christine Fire burned three homes.
“As many firefighters that I’ve talked to this summer have said, the (fire-behavior) norms are out the window. What we thought we knew often doesn’t apply anymore,” he said.
He said the Forest Service can work to do fuel mitigation, but it doesn’t have much control over the weather or climate and building homes in the wildland-urban interface.
“This is a three-headed monster and we’re only dealing with one head of the monster,” he said.
Eardley said fire seasons used to move around the country, starting in the Southeast early in the year, then moving to the Southwest, and so on. Now there’s more overlap between fire seasons in various parts of the country, raising the concern about the potential for fatigue for firefighters who used to sometimes get some down time between regional fire seasons.
In an extreme fire year like this one, a focus for officials like Fitzwilliams is the safety of firefighters and the public. Having once had to knock on a family’s door and tell them their son had died fighting fire, he never wants to repeat that experience.
“We cannot take the risk of losing someone to protect trees or houses. Human life is too precious,” he said.
Fitzwilliams said the White River National Forest’s strategy this year also is on initial attacks designed to put out fires as fast as possible.
“I can’t afford another big fire,” he said.
By July 4th this year, numerous fires were burning in Colorado — the 416 Fire near Durango, and the Spring Creek Fire in the southern part of the state have been the biggest so far.
As everyone knows, fires destroy and reshape ecosystems, but they also affect the freshwater supplies we eventually drink. Water providers, like that in Fort Collins, Colorado, spend a lot of effort making sure that when their customers turn on the tap, clean water comes out. And if there have been fires in the watershed, providers don’t want the water to smell smoky – like you’re drinking out of a canteen near a campfire.
Until recently, says Jill Oropeza, water quality services manager for Fort Collins Utilities, there hasn’t been much research about how wildfires change the chemistry of water and what utilities would have to do to treat it. She said, “The High Park Fire which happened in 2012 was the first time that we had seen some really major and sustained impacts on water quality in the Poudre River, so we were suddenly needing to understand what is our new normal in this watershed.”
The High Park Fire was started by lightning six years ago, about 15 miles west of Ft. Collins, and it destroyed nearly 260 homes, burned more than 85,000 acres, and killed one person. The fire surrounded parts of the Cache la Poudre River – one of the two water sources for Ft. Collins.
The city reached out to the research community to help answer questions about how fires affect what comes down the river afterwards. They turned to Fernando Rosario, an associate professor, in the University of Colorado’s Civil, Environmental, and Architectural Engineering Program, who, with funding by the Water Research Foundation and the National Science Foundation, studied the issue. He began with much fieldwork and then took his research into the lab because, obviously, one can’t go start a new fire in the field to see what happens.
Rosario collected soils and litter from areas where fires occurred in order to simulate wildfire conditions by dissolving them in water. He then created wildfire-impacted water that matched some of the properties that were observed in the High Park Fire.
Next he did studies to see how to effectively treat those waters. One major problem that confronted water utilities was the amount of carbon the water contained. Oropeza with Fort Collins Utilities says they had to develop specific treatment requirements to get rid of as much of the organic carbon as possible.
The reason they have to get rid of the carbon is because it can interact with chlorine they use to treat the water and create disinfection byproducts that are carcinogenic and strictly regulated by the EPA. Ironically, the chemical used to treat water can become a contaminant if there are too many other contaminants in the water.
One finding as a part of Rosario’s research was that different levels of heat on soils factored into the amount of organic carbon that was released.
His team observed that while a high-temperature fire may result in more ash and sediment and might be more damaging to the watershed, the high temperatures caused lower amounts of carbon to be released from the soil than a low- to mid- temperature fire.
A lower temperature wildfire may be less damaging to the watershed, but by releasing more organic carbon, it creates more problems for water treatment professionals – and likely higher utility bills for consumers.
Oropeza says that before the new research no one was looking at how to treat wildfire-affected water. She says that the insights will allow providers to be more prepared, which can help to keep costs down for consumers.
And as far as global warming, she adds that because the number and intensity of fires influenced by climate drivers will likely increase, the requirements for water treatment will likely grow as well.
Reprinted with permission of H2O Radio, a Yale Climate Connections content-sharing partner.
About 566 wildfires are currently burning across the province [British Columbia], prompting the evacuation of 3,000 people
About 566 wildfires are currently burning across the west coast province, prompting the evacuation of some 3,000 people. Another 18,000 residents have been warned that they may have to flee their homes at a moment’s notice.
So far this year more than 1,800 fires have charred some 380,000 hectares (939,000 acres), making it the province’s fourth worst fire season since it began keeping track in 1950.
The fires have left a wide swath of western Canada, including metro Vancouver, blanketed in a thick layer of smoke and haze. Public health officials are warning residents in some regions to avoid strenuous exercise and stay indoors as much as possible.
More than 3,000 firefighters – from across Canada and as far away as Mexico and New Zealand – are working to contain the fires. Some 200 Canadian armed forces personnel are expected to be deployed in the coming days to help the province.
Officials said the decision to declare a state of emergency was based on advice from the province’s wildfire service.
“Public safety is always our first priority and, as wildfire activity is expected to increase, this is a progressive step in our wildfire response to make sure British Columbia has access to any and all resources necessary,” Mike Farnworth, the province’s public safety minister, said in a statement.
It marks the second year in a row that the province has declared wildfires a state of emergency; last year saw a record-setting 1.2m hectares (2,965,264 acres) scorched by fires raging in the province.
Climate change is having an impact, Farnworth said on Wednesday.
“We know that the fire season is starting earlier,” he told reporters. “And each year is different. The bulk of the fires – what we have seen this year – have been lightning-caused.”
The fires have sent huge plumes of smoke wafting across British Columbia, blotting out the sun and darkening skies.
“Ash has been falling like snow,” Shannon Hatch of Fort Fraser, a community in northern British Columbia that was put on evacuation alert this week, told the Globe and Mail. “Yesterday in the afternoon, it was pitch black, like nighttime.”