Region, nation headed for record spending to fight wildfires | VailDaily.com

Region, nation headed for record spending to fight wildfires

EAGLE — Wildfires around the West are burning massive amounts of money, as well as landscape.

Both the nation and the region appear headed for record spending to fight wildfires.

Around the region, the White River National Forest is on its way to another record year of spending to fight wildfires, Eagle Holy Cross District Ranger Aaron Mayville said.

Why it's burning more money, acres

First, fires burn longer than they used to, 30 days longer than they did a decade ago, Mayville said, because the climate is hotter and drier out there.

Second, for the past 100 years, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies have done a good job putting out fires, so there's a lot of fuel built up, Mayville said.

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Third, the urban/wildland interface has increased significantly. That means there are more houses being built in or near the forest, and when the forest burns, so do they.

"We've been fortunate. The Eagle-Holy Cross District has had three or four starts we've been able to contain," Mayville said.

The White River National Forest has also seen fewer human-caused starts this year. Mayville said that could be partially attributed to the fire restrictions and people being mindful of the danger.

The Lake Christine fire near Basalt is 12,588 acres, and the cost to fight it will top $17 million, according to the agency tasked with fighting it.

And while the smoke may remain prominent as it wafts into the Eagle River Valley, we're getting off relatively light.

We could be California

It could be worse. We could be California.

In California, firefighting costs topped $773 million in fiscal year 2017, which ended June 30, reported the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire. That's triple the $242 million California spent in the 2013 fiscal year.

In fact, California has already spent $114 million fighting wildfires in July alone — almost 25 percent of its entire budget for the next year.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says the 2017 fire season was the most expensive on record, with some of last season's biggest fires sparking in September, when the season is supposed to be waning.

However, 2018 is not likely to be any better, the National Interagency Fire Center's most recent wildfire potential outlook says. The agency is forecasting higher-than normal wildfire activity in Southern California for the rest of this year.

93 large wildfires burning

Across the western United States, 93 active large fires have burned 1,344,323 acres, the National Interagency Fire Center reported. Most of that fire activity is in Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho and Oregon.

According to the USDA, Forest Service staffing for firefighting is up 114 percent to more than 12,000 people in 2015, from 5,700 employees in 1998.

That still might not be enough. Some places around the western United States are so strapped that the call has gone out for international assistance from Canada, Australia and New Zealand, the agency said.

The largest of several wildfires in California, the Carr fire, has grown to more than 115,000 acres. More than 4,100 firefighters continue to work in 100-plus degree temperatures to contain the seventh most destructive wildfire in California history.

That fire is currently 35 percent contained but has destroyed more than 1,000 homes and is responsible for the death of two firefighters, as well as four civilians.

$500,000 locally

Closer to home, Eagle County spent more than $500,000 fighting the Lake Christine fire. That does not include labor and expenses for the Sheriff's Office, County Manager Jeff Shroll said.

Much of that $500,000 was consumed by pay and overtime. So far, 165 county staff members worked about 4,200 hours on the fire, he said.

Staff Writer Randy Wyrick can be reached at 970-748-2935 and rwyrick@vaildaily.com.