‘It’s outrageous.’ Early-season cost to fight wildfires has Utah leaders worried

Individuals can be held accountable for costs of fighting a fire if they cause it

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Firefighters hike in the hills near the Bear Fire, in the mountains northwest of Helper on Wednesday, June 9, 2021.

So far in 2021, the cost of fighting wildfires on state and federal lands in Utah is around $36 million, and there are still 3 to 4 months left in the season.

That figure includes all of the state and federal agencies tasked with fighting fires in Utah. Brett Ostler, State Fire Management Officer for the state of Utah, says the state portion of that is about $12 million, maybe more, which is unusual so early in the season.

“It’s outrageous,” Ostler said. “We’ve never had costs like this so early in the year.”

Why so high

The extreme drought gripping Utah has resulted in nearly 500 wildfires in 2021, which is behind last year’s pace. But extremely dry conditions and an unprecedented heatwave have made managing those fires more difficult.

Fortunately, recent wet weather has slowed down the pace of those blazes.

Utah lawmakers annually appropriate some money to fight wildfires across the state. This year, it was about $2 million, which became available on Thursday with the start of the new fiscal year. But wildfires don’t follow fiscal years, which means a supplemental appropriation is needed to cover costs.

That means lawmakers have to come up with extra money after the fire season is over to cover costs. Earlier this year they had to pay an extra $32 million to cover the costs from the 2020 fire season. The year before that it cost $30 million more. That is above and beyond what the federal government pays for fire suppression. In the 2020 fiscal year, the feds budgeted $2.25 billion to fight fires in the Western U.S.

Sen. Scott Sandall, R-Tremonton, is worried the cost for this year’s fire season could carry a much heftier price tag than in the past.

“It’s realistic that we’re going to have increased costs,” Sandall said.

Sandall, who is chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee, says he’s encouraged state and local leaders have been so vocal about the fire danger. He just hopes the public heeds those warnings.

Earlier this week, state and local officials took the unusual step of pleading with Utahns to skip the fireworks this year, even where they’re allowed, because of the extreme fire danger.

“It’s not hard for a fire to get out of control fast. Ultimately, it’s the public’s money we have to spend to fight those fires, but we’d much rather find a way to prevent them,” Sandall said.

This week President Joe Biden met with Western governors, including Utah Gov. Spencer Cox, and pledged to devote more federal resources toward the firefighting effort. But, that federal assistance only goes so far, which means Utah taxpayers are on the hook for a good portion of the balance.

If you’re responsible

Those who cause a wildfire on public lands, even if it’s accidental, can be held liable for the costs of fighting the blaze. In the past, the assistant attorney general responsible for the Department of Natural Resources pursued the collection of those costs. But the workload grew too large, so they’ve hired another person to pursue that money.

“Most of the time, it’s not a person’s intention to start a fire. But they need to be held responsible,” Ostler said. “The costs are getting higher every year, so we’re going after them.”

Ostler says the department recovered about $2 million last year, but most of that money came from fires several years ago because it takes several years for these cases to wind through the system.

Investigators do everything they can to identify who may be responsible for a wildfire, but it’s not always possible. For instance, if a tire blows or a chain dragging on the road causes a spark, the culprit is often long gone before crews arrive on the scene.

“We do what we can, but more often than not, we can’t catch them,” Ostler said.