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Updated Monday, November 19, 2012 at 10:18 AM

Big Central Washington fires push up firefighting tab

By Dan Catchpole
Yakima Herald-Republic

This summer was an expensive one for firefighting in Central Washington, where containing the four largest blazes cost an estimated $67.5 million.

That figure doesn't include the cost of replacing damaged or destroyed property, or more indirect costs such as lost business and tax revenues.

Firefighters' wages and benefits and their equipment are almost always the greatest expense, said Joe Shramek of the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

At an estimated $33.6 million, wages and benefits are just less than half of all costs this year for the region's four largest fires — the Taylor Bridge, Table Mountain, Wenatchee Complex and Yakima Complex fires.

Support personnel cost $10.6 million, nearly 16 percent of the total. Logistics came up to $11.9 million, almost 17 percent of the total. Supplies cost $2.2 million or just over 3 percent. Aviation added up to $9.2 million, just under 14 percent of the total.

Those figures are estimates based on daily field reports compiled by the DNR.

Figuring out the actual costs can take years, said Bill Slosson of the State Patrol's Fire Protection Bureau. The bureau coordinates and pays for mobilization of firefighting resources from around the state — and beyond if necessary — when local firefighting agencies are overwhelmed and the fire isn't on federal land.

The state already has spent about $16 million on mobilizations in the current fiscal year, which started July 1. It spent $4 million in the previous fiscal year, and only $6.5 million in the two years before that, according to the Fire Protection Bureau.

The federal government and the state DNR also often pay for much of the cost to contain forest fires. From 2002 to 2011, an average of $26 million a year has been spent in the state to fight wildfires, according to a 2012 report from the state Department of Ecology.

While many factors affect the final bill, "there's a pretty good correlation between size and cost," Shramek said.

A 2005 study by the state Legislature's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC) reached the same conclusion.

But "an acre isn't an acre isn't an acre," because cost often grows exponentially to size, Shramek said. "It's not unusual on these large complex fires for costs to be $500,000 to $1 million a day."

Indeed, Central Washington's largest fire, the 56,478-acre Wenatchee Complex, cost more than $1.2 million a day. The area's second largest, the 42,312-acre Table Mountain fire about 20 miles north of Ellensburg, was also the second most expensive per day at $809,901.

Large forest fires could become more common if current weather trends continue, according to the 2012 report from Ecology. "The annual area burned by fire in the Columbia Basin is projected to double or triple" in the next 10 to 30 years.

When the right conditions come together to make a wildfire explode, no amount of firefighters and equipment can stop it, Shramek said.

That was the case on the Taylor Bridge fire, which was stoked by high winds as it burned 23,500 acres of dry vegetation and trees about 10 miles east of Cle Elum.

Russ Hobbs, chief of Kittitas County Fire District 7, was extinguishing a small unrelated fire a few miles to the south when the Taylor Bridge fire started shortly after midday Aug. 13. He could see the wind-driven flames spread.

"I could see it was blowing up, and it was going to get away from us," Hobbs said. "I called dispatch and said dispatch all available county resources, and call for a state mobilization."

With the fire moving so quickly, firefighters changed their focus from trying to stop the spread to evacuating people and protecting buildings.

"The premise is that structures are a value that need to be protected. Every effort is going to be made to protect the structures," Shramek said.

That changes how fire-management officials use their resources, though, he said. Those changes can increase costs, the 2005 JLARC study concluded.

"Often, heavy aviation is used to slow the spread of fire toward homes to buy time to get ground resources in to build a line," Shramek said

Air units were heavily used during the Taylor Bridge fire, especially in protecting Sunlight Waters and other communities. At times, the skies over the fire were filled with 10 aircraft, including a command plane, fixed-wing tankers, guide planes and helicopters.

The aircraft checked fast-moving flames long enough for firefighters to save dozens of homes.

"As expensive as they are, we literally couldn't do it without them," Hobbs said of the air units. "Those guys are worth every dime."

The cost of wildfires goes far beyond simply fire suppression. The total price tag includes rebuilding, lost business and tax revenue and decreased property value. The total cost can be two to 30 times more than suppression costs, according to a 2010 paper by the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition.

In developed areas, rebuilding costs can dwarf fire- suppression costs.

In the case of Taylor Bridge, local State Farm agent Scott Rollins said his customers already have filed claims for 12 total losses and 45 partial. "I expect to pay between $8 million and $9 million."

Pemco Insurance spokesman Jon Osterberg said the Seattle company had received claims for six total losses and 21 partial losses, totaling nearly $1.3 million.

In all, 61 homes were destroyed, authorities said.

In addition to filing insurance claims, many homeowners are going to court. As of early November, almost 60 plaintiffs had filed suit in Kittitas County Superior Court against general contractor Conway Construction, of Ridgefield, Clark County, and subcontractor Rainier Steel, of Auburn, alleging they started the fire while working on the bridge.

The DNR has not determined the cause of the fire and says its investigation could take several more months.

The costs of the Taylor Bridge fire could be an indication of what is to come, Shramek said. "Over time, we do expect that forest fire is going to become more expensive and more complicated because of the increased presence of structures in rural areas."

Information from the Yakima Herald-Republic archives was included in this report.


KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A plane drops retardant on a burning ridge between Horse Canyon and Swauk Valley while battling the Taylor Bridge fire northwest of Thorp, Kittitas County, in August.




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