SALT LAKE CITY — More than $47 million have been spent on Utah's wildfires so far this year, according to estimates from firefighting agencies, and 2018 is projected to be among the state's most devastating in terms of acres burned.
According to estimates provided by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, wildfires have burned more than 115,500 acres.
Firefighting aircraft, engines, crews, staff, water, fuel and supplies all leave a hefty bill, and most of the costs are divided among the relevant agencies — federal, state or county.
"Fire costs change by the minute," said Wade Muehlhof, regional spokesman for the Forest Service. "Every time a plane takes off, every time a crew is called upon a fire."
The data come from estimates and projected costs published by the National Interagency Coordination Center, based in Boise, Idaho. The center pulls data from firefighting agencies throughout the country and publishes daily reports.
Utah's six active wildfires account for most of the year's costs so far — an estimated $40.5 million.
According to numbers provided by the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands, firefighting costs in the state reached an estimated $47.4 million in 2017.
In 2016, those costs reached $37.2 million.
These numbers do not include the initial attack costs by federal agencies. Those numbers are not shared with the state, according to Shane Freeman, the division's assistant fire management officer.
In acres burned in the past five years in Utah, 2018 already comes second only to the 2017 fire season, which consumed 219,840 acres.
Most of the costs will not be finalized until later this year when the firefighting agencies negotiate who pays for what, according to Mike Ferris, an emergency management specialist with the U.S. Forest Service.
With multiple agencies operating on the same fire, billing may be difficult to attribute. The first 24 hours of a wildfire is billed to the responding agency, after that, it may be distributed to others involved, Ferris said.
"Somebody in the business side has to sit down, take all the paperwork and just go through all that and start to either bill out or pay out," he said. "Depending on who is owed or who we need to reimburse."
Ferris said that each agency has agreements set in place detailing who will pay what and how much — but for now, they will be more occupied with fighting the fires.
"We never argue about who's going to pay — the response always happens. We always respond. The paperwork will follow," he said. " We never stop to say 'Oh, well, who's going to pay for this?' We go put the fire out and then we sit down to talk about how it's going to be paid."
Ferris said most firefighting operations work with nearby businesses for their supplies and necessities, and they try their best to reimburse them as soon as possible.
"The last thing they want to do is wait for 120 days, or year to get reimbursed for something that should be paid in 30 days," he said.
Out of all firefighting expenses, Ferris said, air support has been the most costly — paying for the fuel, retardant and pilot wages.
The current cost estimates do not include data on smaller fires, Ferris said. The estimated $47.6 million price tag for the state only includes 19 of the year's 693 wildfires.
And those costs are likely to grow as across the state, small wildfires break out — and are put out — every day during fire season, according to Freeman.
As it burns on state land, Utah will likely pay most of the already $16.1 million tab racked up by firefighting efforts at the Dollar Ridge Fire near Strawberry Reservoir, according to Jason Curry, spokesman for the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands.
Dollar Ridge has been the most expensive fire to fight this year in Utah so far. Since July 14 — over the course of a week — Dollar Ridge's estimated tab has grown by $4.9 million as hundreds of firefighters worked to corral the blaze.
"We are appropriated about $2 million every year to put to work wildfire suppression," Curry said. "And if we have a year where we exceed those costs — we go beyond $2 million — then what we've done in the past is we've approached the state Legislature to request supplemental appropriation to cover the rest of the costs."
In the 2018 general session, lawmakers appropriated $19.4 million for fire suppression and rehabilitation costs for 2017 wildfires, according to numbers provided by Senate officials.
The devastating Brian Head Fire cost more than $30 million to fight last year.
As they have already exceeded the budgeted $2 million for 2018, Curry believes it is likely the Utah Division of Forestry, Fire and State Lands will again ask state lawmakers to cover the remaining costs when the Legislature meets in January.
"We will most certainly be having to cover those costs in another way," he said. "And a supplemental request is probably the route that we'll take."
After consuming 74 homes and more than 56,900 acres in 22 days, the human-caused Dollar Ridge Fire is 93 percent contained as of Sunday and is expected to be fully contained by Wednesday.
About 80 miles away, the lightning-caused Deer Creek Fire was fully contained on Wednesday, according to the daily report. It burned 384 acres of state land and cost an estimated $210,000 to fight.
The same budgetary shortages can be found at the U.S. Forest Service, which often pulls funding from unrelated budgets at the end of each fiscal year to cover firefighting costs.
"People will evaluate where we're at financially with the cost of wildfires for this particular season," Muehlhof said. "Then they'll look across the agency at money that has not been yet obligated — money that's still available to be spent."
The process is called "fire borrowing" and will likely be tapered significantly in 2020 when the federal government's new budget comes into effect.
The omnibus spending bill included a bipartisan plan creating a wildfire disaster fund, providing $2 billion per year, so officials don't have to tap unrelated budgets.
National firefighting costs reached record levels in 2017, topping $2.9 billion — most of that bill fell on the Forest Service.
Muehlhof said he doesn't know what that looks like for this fiscal year — which ends in September — but if there is a need to pull money from other budgets, they will.
Muehlhof said he was excited about the new funding, however, "this year, though, things remain as they have in the recent past."
The Forest Service will likely be responsible for the already $14.8 million price tag for firefighting efforts in the Manti-La Sal National Forest. Burning for over a month now, the human-caused Trail Mountain Fire has consumed over 18,000 acres of forest land.
It is 95 percent contained and estimated to be fully completed Aug. 1.
The West Valley Fire also burns on Forest Service lands at 84 percent containment. As of Friday's report, the fire has burned over 11,700 acres and through $8.7 million in firefighting expenses.
Officials expect the West Valley Fire to be fully contained by Friday.
The Forest Service's 1,311-acre, lightning-caused Willow Creek Fire has cost $837,000 to fight as of Friday, according to the daily report. At 97 percent containment, the wildfire isn't expected to be contained fully until Oct. 11.7 comments on this story
A new fire on Forest Service land started early this week, consuming 730 acres of Fishlake National Forest so far. The Wood Canyon Fire is 50 percent contained as of Friday and has cost an estimated $200,000 to fight so far.
Utah's five costliest wildfires in 2018 so far, estimated
- Dollar Ridge Fire: $16.1 million
- Trail Mountain Fire: $14.8 million
- West Valley Fire: $8.7 million
- Black Mountain Fire: $1.2 million
- Rough Canyon Fire: $1 million SOURCE: National Interagency Coordination Center