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Costs of big wildfire season hurting Utah, other states

Published: Thursday, Aug. 23 2012 2:06 p.m. MDT

A crew from PG&E works Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, to restore power to a rural subdivision overrun by fire by the Ponderosa Fire outside Manton, Calif.  (Jeff Barnard, Associated Press) A crew from PG&E works Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, to restore power to a rural subdivision overrun by fire by the Ponderosa Fire outside Manton, Calif. (Jeff Barnard, Associated Press)

MANTON, Calif. — Twisted sheets of metal, the hulks of pickup trucks and brick walls were all that was left of homes once sheltered by green pine and cedar trees.

In a rural Northern California subdivision that was the latest to feel the wrath of massive western wildfires, long pine needles bent back on themselves, unburned but dried to a brittle dusty gray by the intense heat of the Ponderosa fire.

Thousands of residents of tiny rural communities just outside Lassen Volcanic National Park who had been forced to flee soon after the fire was ignited by lighting on Saturday were allowed to return home on Wednesday.

While the fire was 57 percent contained, with full containment forecast for early next week, 900 other homes were threatened Thursday as the fire burned a new front on the southern front.

A sign with a message of thanks from a homeowner stands in front of a house that was saved by firefighters defending against a huge wildfire that has burned dozens of homes and other structures in remote, densely forested terrain through the hills outside Manton, Calif. (Jeff Barnard, Associated Press) A sign with a message of thanks from a homeowner stands in front of a house that was saved by firefighters defending against a huge wildfire that has burned dozens of homes and other structures in remote, densely forested terrain through the hills outside Manton, Calif. (Jeff Barnard, Associated Press)

The blaze has grown to 44 square miles in the hills about 25 miles southeast of Redding.

Bob Folsom, who works at a nearby hydroelectric facility, tended the gasoline generator that is keeping his refrigerator running while utility crews worked to replace power lines destroyed by the blaze when it roared through the area last weekend.

"I was ready for this day," he said. "I try to be self-sufficient."

Folsom and his son never left their home as the fire burned within a half mile of them last weekend, close enough that they heard trees exploding and the flames roaring like a freight train. Over the past 10 years, they had thinned hundreds of trees, dug a pond to store water, and installed hydrants to fill fire hoses.

"When it comes through, it's gonna come fast," he said. "You don't have time to cut down trees."

Smoke rises from the High Park Fire on Sunday, June 24, 2012, near Livermore, Colo. (The Coloradoan, Dawn Madura, AP Photo) Smoke rises from the High Park Fire on Sunday, June 24, 2012, near Livermore, Colo. (The Coloradoan, Dawn Madura, AP Photo)

Fires across the West have left some states with thin budgets to scramble to get people, planes, bulldozers and other tools on fire lines to beat back the flames.

And that's with about a third of the annual wildfire season remaining.

According to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, the nation as of Wednesday had seen 42,927 wildfires this year, which burned just over 7 million acres.

While the number of fires is down from the 10-year average of 54,209 as of Aug. 22, the acreage was well above the average of 5.4 million acres, said Don Smurthwaite, a NIFC spokesman.

"The fires are bigger," he said.

In Colorado Springs, Colo., this summer, about 350 homes were burned in the most destructive wildfire in state history. Another fire in northern Colorado just before it scorched 257 homes.

The sun sets amidst smoke from the High Park Fire near Bellvue, Colo., on Monday, June 18, 2012.  (Ed Andrieski, Associated Press) The sun sets amidst smoke from the High Park Fire near Bellvue, Colo., on Monday, June 18, 2012. (Ed Andrieski, Associated Press)

The costs have mounted, not just in the damage to houses and other buildings.

In Utah, for example, officials have spent $50 million as of mid-August to fight more than 1,000 wildfires, far surpassing the $3 million a year the Legislature budgeted for fighting wildfires.

The state's share is estimated at $16 million, said Roger Lewis of the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands. He said lawmakers will need to figure out how to come up with $13 million.

That's the largest-ever supplemental appropriation request needed for firefighting in the state, agency spokesman Jason Curry said. He said, "It's obviously been a big year."

Washington state fire officials project that they will spend about $19.8 million on emergency fire suppression activities in the current fiscal year that ends next June.

A vehicle and other debris are left burned at a home along Kuehster Road in Conifer, Colo., on Thursday, March 29, 2012, where a wildfire broke out on Monday.  (The Denver Post, Helen H. Richardson)  MAGS OUT; TV OUT, Associated Press) A vehicle and other debris are left burned at a home along Kuehster Road in Conifer, Colo., on Thursday, March 29, 2012, where a wildfire broke out on Monday. (The Denver Post, Helen H. Richardson) MAGS OUT; TV OUT, Associated Press)

That is expected to far surpass the $11.2 million the agency was allotted for such work, meaning the Department of Natural Resources will have to ask the Legislature for supplemental funds.

Not all Western states are seeing their budgets busted because of fires.

In Oregon, the state estimated it had spent $3.4 million through last Saturday to fight wildfires, with more than two months of the season left. Last year, it spent $6.6 million.

In Montana, forest managers told Gov. Brian Schweitzer that long-term forecasts call for fire conditions through the end of September, which is longer than normal.

The Northern Rockies Coordination Center put the total cost of fighting large wildfires in Montana, including costs to federal and state agencies, at $64 million so far this season. The state's share is about $25 million to fight fires that have burned about 1,100 square miles.

An official speaks with Brittany Harrington at a road closure near her home on Highway 287, due to a wildfire burning in a mountainous area about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Sunday, June 10, 2012. (Aaron Ontiveroz, Associated Press) An official speaks with Brittany Harrington at a road closure near her home on Highway 287, due to a wildfire burning in a mountainous area about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colo., on Sunday, June 10, 2012. (Aaron Ontiveroz, Associated Press)

Schweitzer said the state has already burned through cash reserves set aside for such natural disasters, but that plenty of money is available from surplus general funds.

While parts of the Southwest, particularly Southern California, still have three months of fire season left, Smurthwaite said, shorter days, declining temperatures and higher humidity will help curtail fires.

"That's almost like putting a little wet blanket over a fire," he said.

Firefighters in Northern California on Wednesday made progress in containing a huge wildfire that has burned dozens of homes and scorched about 38 square miles. It was 50 percent contained Wednesday morning.

The threat to homes dropped from 3,500 earlier this week to 260 residences, officials said.

The Quail Fire rages in Alpine Tuesday, July 3, 2012. The fire burned around 2,222 acres. (Tim Johnson) The Quail Fire rages in Alpine Tuesday, July 3, 2012. The fire burned around 2,222 acres. (Tim Johnson)

Fire crews assessing the rural area determined Tuesday that 50 buildings had been destroyed since it was sparked by lightning Saturday. It was unclear when the structures burned and how many were homes.

More than 2,100 firefighters were battling the fire near several remote towns about 170 miles north of Sacramento.

Elsewhere in California, a large wildfire in Plumas National Forest continued to expand, helped by gusty winds.

The blaze, about 120 miles north of Sacramento, has consumed nearly 98 square miles since it started at the end of July and threatens about 900 homes. It was 37 percent contained Wednesday.

In Washington state, fire crews still hoped to fully contain a week-old wildfire that has destroyed 51 homes and 26 outbuildings and damaged at least six other homes, authorities said.

Bob Folsom pets his dogs at his home outside Manton, Calif.,  Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, where he remained to protect his property as the fast-moving Ponderosa Fire bore down within a half-mile of his home over the weekend. (Jeff Barnard, Associated Press) Bob Folsom pets his dogs at his home outside Manton, Calif., Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2012, where he remained to protect his property as the fast-moving Ponderosa Fire bore down within a half-mile of his home over the weekend. (Jeff Barnard, Associated Press)

The fire, about 75 miles east of Seattle, has caused an estimated $8.3 million in property damage.

In south-central Idaho, authorities have spent more than $23 million fighting a fire near the towns of Pine and Featherville and another in a forest near the resort town of Stanley.

Those wildfires have each consumed about 150 square miles, and will not be extinguished for some time, Smurthwaite said.

"We expect to be managing them for weeks to come," he said.

Geranios reported from Spokane, Wash. Associated Press writers Haven Daley in Manton Calif., Jonathan Cooper in Salem, Ore., Brian Skoloff in Salt Lake City, Terry Collins, John S. Marshall and Terence Chea in San Francisco, Shannon Dininny in Yakima, Wash., Mike Baker in Olympia, Wash., and Jessie Bonner in Boise, Idaho, contributed to this report

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