The 10 most expensive wildfires in the West’s history

Why suppressing wildfires costs public land agencies so much money.

 

In July, an illegal campfire in Garrapata State Park ignited the most expensive fire in U.S. history. The Soberanes Fire on the Central Coast of California is currently burning over 132,000 acres, and is 100 percent contained after 83 days. In a remote, rugged area, the Soberanes was difficult for firefighters to reach, but it forced some communities to evacuate. It cost an estimated $260 million to fight – a large chunk of that paid for by the U.S. Forest Service.

Fighting fires now accounts for over half of the Forest Service’s budget; two decades ago, it consumed only about 16 percent. By the end of the fire season, 2015 became the costliest in history – $1.7 billion – and the agency expects the cost of fires to continue to climb in the future. With climate change, extended drought, and more people living in wildfire danger zones, fires burn twice as much land each year as they did 40 years ago, while the seasons are lasting longer and fighting fires is becoming more expensive.

A crew assesses the Soberanes Fire south of Monterey, California.
California National Guard

The National Interagency Fire Center estimates the suppression cost of each individual wildfire, though that doesn’t reflect the total, which could include aviation costs and other bills after fires are extinguished. The Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and state and local governments pitch in, but according to Jessica Gardetto, deputy chief of external affairs for BLM Fire and Aviation at the NIFC, it’s unclear how the expenses break down exactly. “These large fires are just so complicated, and have so many different entities working on them, that it's almost impossible to provide a solid total fire cost number,” she says. 

In general, money goes to wages for firefighters, hotshot crews, smokejumpers and support personnel; food, shelter, equipment and supplies for crews; and equipment like air tankers, helicopters, water scoopers, bulldozers and water tenders. There are three main reasons why some wildfires cost more than others to fight, says Jennifer Jones, public affairs specialist for the Forest Service. First, it depends on how much the fire threatens urbanized areas or wildland urban interfaces. If buildings, power lines, and valuable cultural and natural resources like watersheds are at risk, it complicates strategic efforts and may increase firefighting costs. Second, the type of fuel that is burning, climate change, and weather conditions such as extreme wind or high temperatures, can impact the severity of fires. The third variable is firefighting strategies — different tactics require a variety of firefighting personnel, aircraft and equipment, as well as new, expensive technologies.

The Soberanes Fire has been burning for more than two months. Fuel, labor, evacuation, and aerial equipment costs add up, says Char Miller, professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College. “It is consistent with a developing pattern of larger, more intense fires in this climate-charged environment which is also wracked by five years of drought and counting,” he says. “This is adding to the intensity of the fires—such as the Blue Cut, Canyon, and those in Lake County—and their speed, which leads to heavy upfront costs spent to try to slow them down or deflect them away from residential areas.” As California continues to endure drought with no end in sight, the state’s wildfires will burn hot and fast, which means they’ll continue to be expensive.

Here is a list of the West’s 10 estimated costliest fires in history, compiled from NIFC report data and NIFC’s list of historically significant wildfires. Many of these have taken place in California. The price tag reflects the cost on the last day NIFC posted the fire on its daily report. The costs aren’t adjusted for inflation over time, and they don’t include home insurance or damage costs for homes and other structures, which significantly increase the overall expense of fires:

10. Station Fire
August 2009, California
Estimated cost: $92.5 million

This fire started in the Angeles National Forest, near a ranger station on the Angeles Crest Highway. It killed two firefighters and burned over 160,000 acres before it was contained in October 2009. It was the largest fire in recorded history in the Angeles forest, and was caused by arson, which led to a homicide investigation because of the firefighter deaths.

9. Pioneer Fire

July 2016, Idaho
Estimated cost: $94 + million

The Pioneer Fire in the Boise National Forest has been burning for over two months now, scorching more than 188,000 acres. It’s still less than 70 percent contained, but NIFC estimates it will be extinguished by mid-October. Because of its proximity to cities, the Pioneer Fire was a major priority for the agencies throughout the summer. Below is a visualization of the fire by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford.

8. King Fire

September 2014, California
Estimated cost: $102.5 million

An estimated 8,000 wildfires occured in California in 2014, fueled by drought. The most well known was the King Fire in El Dorado County, started by an arsonist who took a selfie video. In total, the blaze burned 97,000 acres and destroyed 12 homes. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay $60 million to victims earlier this year.

7. Wallow Fire

May 2011, Arizona
Estimated cost: $109 million

Two people admitted to starting the Wallow Fire unintentionally with a campfire in Arizona’s Apache Sitgreaves National Forest. They were sentenced to two days in jail and 200 hours of community service for the largest wildfire in the state’s recent history, which burned 538,000 acres in Apache tribal lands and the Gila National Forest.

6. Zaca Fire

July 2007, California
Estimated cost: $117 million

The Zaca Fire burned through 240,000 acres in Santa Barbara County and the Los Padres National Forest. Sparks from sparks from grinding equipment started the fire. Below is a visualization of the fire by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford.

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5. Yellowstone Fires

August 1988, Wyoming
Estimated cost: $120 million

In total, 248 fires burned in the greater Yellowstone area in 1988. About seven of them were responsible for the majority of the damage; three were human-caused. The fires scorched 1.2 million acres and nearly 30 percent of the park. Twenty-five thousand firefighters worked on the blazes that year.

4. Rough Fire

July 2015, California
Estimated cost: $121 million

This wildfire broke out in Kings River Canyon in the Sierra National Forest. By August, it jumped the Kings River and spread into Sequoia National Forest and Kings Canyon National Park. It took until December to be fully extinguished, and burned about 151,000 acres and almost 9,000 acres of sequoia groves. Nearly 4,000 people worked to put the fire out, and the costs were higher than initially reported because of repair and stabilization of park areas.

3. Rim Fire

August 2013, California
Estimated cost: $127 million

The Rim Fire was started by a hunter’s illegal campfire in a canyon in the Stanislaus National Forest and Yosemite National Park. It burned about 256,000 acres, the largest fire on record in the Sierra Nevada. Below is a visualization the wildfire by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford.

2. Biscuit Fire

July 2002, Oregon
Estimated cost: $150 + million

Lightning ignited five fires in the Kalmiopsis Wilderness over a three-day period. By August, they came together and lasted for nearly four months, burning about half a million acres in Southern Oregon and Northern California. It’s still considered Oregon’s largest forest fire of record.

1. Soberanes Fire

July 2016, California
Estimated cost: $260 + million

At its peak, there were over 5,000 people fighting this fire in the Ventana Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest, Garrapata State Park, and south of the Carmel Valley near Big Sur. Extreme heat and chaparral fueled the fire for the last couple of months. The NIFC reported it was fully contained on October 12. Below is a visualization of the fire by the Bill Lane Center for the American West at Stanford. 

This article has been corrected to reflect the starting location of the Soberanes Fire. It was also updated when the Soberanes Fire was reported fully contained. 

Lyndsey Gilpin is an editorial fellow at High Country News. She tweets

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