Big-ticket fires such as the recent Tank Fire in north Orem do more than scorch the local hillside and wear out firefighters. They burn large holes in the national budget Congress later has to refill.
Loyal Clark, spokeswoman for the Uinta National Forest Service, said that means people who deliberately or accidentally cause a fire actually end up enlarging the national deficit."People don't realize there's no specific tax to support fire protection and suppression costs and the money has to be appropriated."
Local agencies and divisions like the Uinta National Forest estimate fire suppression costs each season, but predicting wildfires is difficult. The estimate is based on a formula that includes a review of conditions over the past five years, precipitation measurements, population growth and even the political climate.
"Every fire season we basically exceed our budgets," said Clark. "It's just impossible to forecast. It then becomes a question of taking the money from somewhere else."
The Forest Service never recoups all of the costs of fighting a fire, even when the people known to have set a fire are pursued for restitution.
Two teenagers in Orem are being prosecuted through Utah County's juvenile court division for the $1.5 million Tank Fire, but Clark is skeptical about how much can realistically be recovered.
A fire at the Trojan explosives plant in 1994 has yet to get through litigation and so there's been nothing recovered there, she said. That fire on Maple Mountain cost the Forest Service $900,000.
The projected budget for Uinta for 1996 was set at $524,000. "See, with the one fire, we've exceeded that," said Clark.
When a fire breaks out, there are immediate costs that have to be paid such as the $16- to $18-per-hour hazard wage paid to crews who go on the fire line. The firefighters must be brought in, airline tickets bought, buses rented, and sometimes special accommodations made.
Locally, the National Guard opens its armories to house firefighters, a welcome offer since the armories have hot showers and bunks available. Sometimes tent cities go up.
Caterers hired on seasonal contracts provide meals, especially on large or extended fires. Their contracts are also negotiated before the fire season begins, but extra catering bills are one of the by-products of a fire season that is busier than expected.
Then there are miscellaneous costs for toilet paper, socks, bandages, burn cream, moleskin and the replacement of personal equipment or property that is damaged in the firefighting, said Clark.
Each fire district has a person specifically assigned to count and crunch the numbers, she said.
Air tankers and helicopters that carry water buckets are also pricey. Even after a fire is out, mop-up work, erosion control and revegetation work all carry an additional cost.
"We have to worry about mud slides and flooding, that kind of thing."
To avoid squabbling on the ground when a fire simply must be fought, responsibility for costs is generally dictated by the property owner and entities ordering the suppression equipment, said Clark.
But there are often blurred lines. For instance, a recent Sundance fire burned on private land in Utah County but the Forest Service helped respond.
"We'll be talking about that," said Clark, "but we expect the county will pay for that one."
With the Tank Fire, most of the land burned was state-owned but the Forest Service had a critical interest in seeing that it didn't do serious damage in Provo Canyon. "There, the state took half and we took half," said Clark.
The Uinta, Ashley and Wasatch Forest districts "pool" their fire budgets to try and help cover large fire bills, she said. There was $2,771,000 in that fund before the fire season began.Comment on this story
Clark feels if people really understood the link between taxpayer money and fire suppression they would take warnings and restrictive notices more seriously.
"I was just amazed this past Labor Day weekend," she said. "We had personnel chasing campfires all over the place. Nobody thinks it'll be their fire. The mind set is that it's somebody else doing these things."
Human-caused fires in the local area outnumber lightning-caused fires by 4 to 1. Human-caused fires are also more difficult to fight, while lightning-caused tend to be at higher elevations and burn less.