Price tag for Utah wildfires estimated at $50 million — so far

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 14 2012 7:21 p.m. MDT

In this Aug. 6 file photo, a plane drop flame retardant as a fire burns close to Eagle Mountain. The price tag for fighting this year's wildfires is now estimated at $50 million.

Tom Smart, File, Deseret News

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SALT LAKE CITY — The price tag for fighting the more than 1,000 wildfires that have burned in the state so far this fire season is estimated at $50 million — a number that could climb even higher in the coming months, lawmakers were told Tuesday.

Mike Styler, director of the Department of Natural Resources, said at a meeting of the Legislature's Executive Appropriations Committee that the state's share of that total would be about $16 million.

The 422,000 acres damaged by fire throughout Utah will require what Styler said is the largest-ever supplemental appropriation for firefighting, some $13 million from the 2013 Legislature plus an additional $8 million to rehabilitate and reseed burned land.

Styler said "it's anyone's guess" how much those costs could increase before the expected end of the fire season in late fall. There are even more expenses associated with the fires, he said, citing mudslides clogging central Utah's Huntington Creek.

Fish in the creek died and the tainted water threatened a nearby power plant that relied on clear water to cool its turbines, Styler said — costs not taken into account in the estimated $8.7 million cost of fighting the Seeley Fire.

While that blaze, which started in late June, cost more to battle than any other in the state this fire season, Utah's share of the cost will be about $1.4 million because of the federal lands involved.

The Wood Hollow Fire in Sanpete County that apparently cost a man his life after he apparently refused to evacuate will also be the most expensive for Utah taxpayers. The state will likely pay all but about $500,000 of the estimated $5.7 million price tag.

State Forester Dick Buehler told the committee that investigators are working to determine what fires are due to negligence and identifying the individuals or companies responsible.

Throughout their presentation to the committee, the officials tried to emphasize the good that can come from wildfires.

"This is not a message of despair. It is a message of hope," Styler said, highlighting the opportunity the fires present to reduce the threat of future blazes as well as improve the watershed and forage for livestock and wildlife.

Buehler pointed to the Yellowstone National Park fire of 1988 that many feared would destroy its scenic beauty but resulted in the "creation of a new forest. ... Some of these fires do an awful lot of good."

Neither Styler nor Buehler offered criticism of the federal government's management of public lands despite questions from lawmakers, including House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo. 

Buehler told the Deseret News the agency has absorbed the $2 million to $4 million annual cost of fighting fires over the past four years. There is some $3 million available annually from a suppression fund paid into by each of the state's 29 counties, he said.

Rather than budget for fighting wildfires, the agency goes to the Legislature to recover its costs. "It's the only way we can do it. We never know from year to year how much the fires can cost," Buehler said. "It's a game of trying to guess."

Some of those costs take years to sort out, he said, especially involving federal funds including the five Federal Emergency Management Agency grants made to Utah that may eventually pay up to 75 percent of the state's firefighting costs.

Also to be calculated is exactly what Utah owes other states for assistance from crews that traveled from as far away as Alaska. Settling up won't come until after the fire season ends and also takes time. 

 "It's a real cost tracking, financial nightmare to keep track of all this," Buehler said.

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