Communities affected by wildfires could still feel the burn for years to come

Communities affected by wildfires could still feel the burn for years to come. (Photo by Tristan Fortsch)

YAKIMA, Wash.- "About 10 million acres burned and the actual bill after the fire was 24 times higher than the cost of fire suppression. So, $50 billion."

Dr. Paul Hessburg with the U.S. Forest Service says in 2015 they spent two to three billion dollars when it comes to fire suppression in the west, which was nothing compared to total that came after the fire was out.

The Jolly Mountain and Norse Peak fires have been contained but local communities and government agencies are still paying the price from the blazes.

While firefighters were able to keep losses to a minimum, the tens of thousands of acres burned still hold value.

"A lot of it isn't just private property,” Hessburg said. “Forest and business values as well. There's a ton of lost revenue."

The Jolly Mountain area is surrounded by forests and lakes that are used throughout the summer for recreation and tourism.

However, Gerry Day with the Department of Natural Resources said evacuations and road closures hindered smaller communities like Cle Elum and Roslyn from making money during their busiest season of the year.

"There were parts of that access to recreation that were closed 35-38 days this summer. That's a significant hit to the local economy and to the area," he said.

The Western Forestry Leadership Coalition studied fires from early 2000 to see how communities are affected by large wildfires.

The direct fire suppression cost ranged from nine and a half to $61 million. The cost of lost property, revenue and rehabbing the land was from eight million all the way to over a billion dollars.

While these might be extreme situations, the U.S. Forest Service says it's able to get most fires under control quickly.

Jennifer Jones with the Forest Service said the most difficult part is being ready for the large ones.

"It's really that one percent of fires that get big and very costly and those one to two percent of fires that take up about 30% of our budget," she said.

30% of a budget that is already mostly dedicated to putting out fires.

The downside to putting out these blazes right away, is that forests are now overstocked with trees ready to burn and the forest service has to set more money aside to be ready when they spark up.

In 1995, about 15% of the Forest Service budget was for fire suppression, but that jumped to 52% in 2015 and they are projecting it to go up to 67% by 2025.

Changes to the budget also changes to the amount of people they have ready to fight these fires.

The Forest Service has added around 7,000 people dedicated to firefighting, which is a 114% increase since 1998.

This takes away from the amount of people they have to manage the forest and trails in general.

Fire season may be at its end, but local and government agencies are already looking forward to how they are going to pay for everything next year.

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