Fighting Wildfires Isn't Cheap But The Bill Doesn’t Come Right Away

Jul 10, 2012

About 300 firefighters have been working to put out Idaho’s largest wildfire burning in the state’s south central desert lands. Twelve aircraft and more than 30 pieces of ground equipment have been used on this blaze. All of these efforts to stop a fire cost millions of dollars. 

At the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise,  big monitors in command central show… cable news, and phones ring sporadically. But a few weeks ago when destructive fires burned in Colorado and around the west, this room was controlled pandemonium as people marshaled firefighting efforts.  

“When we respond to a fire now it’s not just one agency responding and it’s not just one agency that pays those bills,” says Tory Henderson acting Assistant Director of Fire Operations for the US Forest Service. "And so to collectively gather all those costs for what a fire truly costs us, we typically aren’t able to give you a final figure for months afterwards.”

The Forest Service has the largest fire budget in the country, $2.1 billion dollars this year. That covers everything from fire prevention to suppression. But spending that money can be as hard as fighting fires. Take the Kinyon Road Fire, Idaho’s largest so far this year. It’s on BLM land, and as Henderson explains, that means the BLM will be responsible for picking up the biggest piece of the tab. The BLM falls under the umbrella of the Department of the Interior. Its fire budget this year is about $755 million. But Henderson’s Department is fighting that fire too.

“The Forest Service is paying that cost ourselves," she says.  "We kind of share the contracted workload.”

State and local agencies are sharing the work on that fire too. When the flames are dowsed, then they’ll figure out who pays what. But Henderson guesses they’ve spent less so far this year than at this same time last year.

“Even though it appears to be a heavier fire season right now, statistically, it’s not," she says. "When you look at the number of fires to date versus this same day last year, we’re about I think ten thousand or more fires less.”

The State of Idaho averages $8.6 million a year fighting wildfires. Last year the Interior Department spent $319 million and the Forest Service spent $1.4 billion to fight fires. That’s about how much it has on hand this year. Some years when the smoke clears, Henderson says, they find they've gone over budget. But as she puts it, they won't stop fighting fires because they've run out of money.