And that dollar total doesn’t include the damage done to private or public buildings, the cost of fire area rehabilitation or the damage done to fishing, grazing and wildlife habitat.
Department of Natural Resources boss Mike Styler, a former GOP House member, told the Executive Appropriations Committee that with two-thirds of the fire season done the cost to state coffers by fighting wildfires will be $13 million.
It will cost another $8 million to seed and rehab the burned state land areas, said Styler.
Basically, said Styler, the entity governing the area burned pays the cost of fighting the fire – on federal BLM and Forest Service lands that’s the feds, on state lands the Legislature, on county land the county and in cities, the city.
Utah has seen some expensive wildfires within city limits this year, an unusual occurrence.
“In 39 years of watching” Utah fires, said State Forester Dick Buhler, “I’ve never seen fire act like this.”
In other words, there have been some pretty scary fires this year, especially in June.
But it isn’t over with yet, even though you may see less coverage on local TV stations and newspapers.
“Just last week we had 75 fires started” by nature, mostly lightening strikes, said Styler. Quick reaction by local citizens and fire fighters kept nearly all of those fires contained, he added.
Also a big, big help is the rehabilitation work done over the last 10 years by state and federal agencies.
Trees are chained down, vegetation plowed under and other work done, he added. Styler showed a map of 2012 fires and where rehab projects have been completed.
“Nowhere there has been (rehab) have we had a major fire,” he added. “Rehabilitation works” to stop wild fire.
There are types of plants that are fire resistant. And cheat grass, an invasive but wide-spread species, has been removed. Cheat grass burns quickly and is a major enhancer in wild fire.
Styler will come to the 2013 Legislature asking not only for funds to pay for state land wild fire costs but also for greater rehabilitation efforts.
Sen. Lyly Hillyard, R-Logan, the Senate’s budget chairman, asked Styler if the number $20 million may be reasonable to settle fire fighting costs this fiscal year.
In mid-fire season, “That would only be a guess,” said Styler.
Buhler reminded legislative leaders that the state’s fiscal year runs from July 1 to June 30. “If we have another June” in 2013 like “we had this June, the costs” in the current fiscal year “will be much greater.”
At the end of each fire season, federal and state officials meet with affected county and city officials to have a “post mortem” over who is responsible for what costs in fighting wild fires, said Styler.
Counties all pay into a special fire fund. And after a wild fire affected county pays so much itself, it can then tap that fund.
Cities don’t have such a fund, said Styler. And his department may come to the 2013 Legislature to suggest that one be set up.
Currently, cities are supposed to pay for most of the cost of fighting a wild fire within their boundaries.
But sometimes a city or town, billed by the state for wild fire costs, just doesn’t pay. “We have $500,000 in delinquent bills” sent to cities, but not paid, said Styler.
“In such a case, I guess everyone in the state is paying” for those costs, he added.
And don’t assume that Wasatch Front cities are immune from wild fire.
Styler said there hasn’t been a major wild fire on the foothills in Salt Lake City in years.
“I’d hate to see” the mud flows or other wild fire damages in City Creek Canyon or one of the Cottonwoods in a major fire, he added.
In a related matter, Utah Republican leaders are getting local and national criticism for their attempts to take back millions of federal land acres; bring them into state control.
While national forest land would remain with the federal government, Utah could get back millions of Bureau of Land Management acres if the Republicans’ efforts pan out.
That would bring more money into state coffers as those lands are leased for mining or grazing.
But could also result in greater costs in managing those former federal lands and fighting wild fire.
House Speaker Becky Lockhart, R-Provo, asked Buhler if the fact that the federal government – with all of its rules and bureaucracies – manages so much land in Utah adds to wild fire costs?
Buhler said he would answer the question in a round about way.
“I thought you would,” said Lockhart.
The federal government actually pays for a great deal of land management/rehabilitation costs, even outside of federal land borders, said Buhler and Styler.
That’s because federal officials understand that if a fire can be avoided or contained before it gets to federal lands, that saves the federal government a lot of money.
In addition, nearly all of the State Forestry Division’s and Department of Natural Resources’ land rehab money comes from the federal government.
However, said Styler, the state pays for and operates much of the reseeding operations. That’s because federal regulations won’t allow federal land managers to use the best mix of seeds or use other effective operations.
“They let us do it. And we contract out much of the work” to private businesses that know how to conduct such operations, said Styler.
“The good news is we have a plan,” said Styler. “We know how to fix this,” the burned lands of 2012.
“Gov. Herbert has told us to be more aggressive, get ahead of these fires through rehabilitation. We’ll put a plan before you” in the 2013 Legislature.