Feel the Burn: A Look Back At the 2012 Fire Season Shows Heavy Costs, Big Challenges 

Recent summers have brought not only more wildfires, but more intense burns

Idaho burns. If you've lived in the Gem State for any amount of time, forest fires--or range fires--are facts of life. But following national trends, those yearly fire seasons have steadily increased in intensity. If you were anywhere in the Treasure Valley this past summer, that fact was big enough to almost blot out the sun.

"I was one of those who couldn't see the sun for a couple of weeks," said Randy Eardley, assistant chief of external affairs at the National Interagency Fire Center, based in Boise.

The center, or NIFC, works with the U.S. Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and other state and local agencies to coordinate fire and disaster relief around the country. And like elsewhere this year, Idaho has "taken a beating," Eardley said.

"If we look at acres burned, that's 9.1 million acres [nationwide]. That's only the third time we've surpassed 9 million since the 1960s, and all three have happened since 2006," he said. "That's an indication that the fire seasons in the last decade, at least since 2000, have been, overall, seeing a lot larger fires. A lot more extreme fire behavior."

The cost of fighting those fires, though still approximate, is steep. According to Eardley, the Forest Service spent a nationwide total of $1.5 billion ("that's billion, with a 'b,'" he said) and the BLM spent $300 million.

"When you factor in all the other, smaller efforts at the state and local levels, I think we're approaching $2 billion," he added.

That's not unheard of, though.

"At least one other fire season topped $2 billion, but it's safe to say that 2012 was among the most severe," Eardley said.

That trend was definitely reflected in Idaho, where about 1.76 million acres burned during the 2012 season. That was almost 20 percent of the total acreage nationwide, and the biggest burn since 2007, when more than 3 million acres went up in smoke. (That year's fires surpassed 2000's total of about 1.8 million acres, making it the most acreage-intense fire season since the "Big Burn" of 1910.)

Forest managers and fire experts say the total cost of Idaho's most recent fire season is still being tallied, but suppression efforts alone are pegged at $214 million, according to an Idaho Department of Lands report presented to the Land Board on Nov. 20.

While it's a big number, $214 million doesn't tell the whole story.

More than one-third of the acreage burned in Idaho in 2012 can be attributed to just three fires: the Mustang Complex and Halstead Fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest (340,659 acres and 181,798 acres, respectively), and the 146,832-acre Trinity Ridge Fire in the Boise National Forest.

"I would compare it to 2007, which was the worst year the Boise Forest has ever experienced, as far as acres burned," said Bob Shindelar, forest fire chief at the Boise National Forest.

According to Shindelar, the USFS spent $54 million on fire suppression in the forest this year and $45 million on just the Trinity Ridge blaze.

"But if you look at the losses of the value of the timber, the recreational opportunities, the tourism opportunities, it was much greater than the cost to put these fires out," he said, adding that while those figures hadn't been calculated for the Boise National Forest, it's clear that "the suppression costs themselves are only a fraction of the true cost of having these fires."

The Idaho Department of Lands has also not yet completed a full accounting of costs related to the 2012 season, and BLM data, too, is unavailable (the agency's fire information office did not return calls requesting comment), but, according to a 2010 report from the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition, the full economic impacts of forest fires "have historically escaped accounting by land management agencies, and may extend years beyond the wildlife event."

Pointing to just how complex it is to measure the long-term affects of a forest fire, the WFLC paper stated that the total price tag of a fire can be anywhere from two to 30 times more than the cost of putting it out. That means Idaho's latest fire season could actually amount to between $428 million and $6.4 billion, including everything from costs relating to long-term forest rehabilitation and lost tax revenue, to shorter term economic impacts like depressed tourism revenue and repairing or rebuilding damaged property.

"You'd need an economist," Shindelar said, "but I think the consequences are the same regardless of how big the fire is. There's the economic impacts to local economies and communities when there's closures ... then there's the other things we need to do on the forest: improving campgrounds or road maintenance. That stuff just doesn't get done."

While there's no debate that big fires cost big money, there is no small amount of disagreement about how best (or whether) to stop them from happening in the first place. And if current trends hold, they most certainly will increase even as the number of fires appears to be shrinking.

According to data from the NIFC, the 2012 fire season--measured from January through October--saw the second most acreage burned since 2000. The number of fires and acres burned per fire, however, beat previous records, but in different ways: 51,811 fires burned around the country during that time period, signaling the fewest number of blazes in 13 years. At the same time, though, each fire burned an average of 173.8 acres.

As in Idaho, the bulk of that acreage was due to a handful of mega-fires, which means we might be experiencing fewer fires, but their intensity and costs are rising.

There are myriad reasons for that, but a season's severity comes down to two simple factors: forest management and climate.

"To me, size does not mean impact, necessarily," said Penelope Morgan, a professor of forest ecology at the University of Idaho. "Some of those fires were burning in places where there hadn't been fires in a long time, and where many plants and animals and ecosystem functions--and, indeed, values that people have--were in the long-term favored by fires. And in some places, less so."

Morgan breaks down these places into three basic categories:

Cold weather forests, like those in north-central Idaho and the panhandle, tend to act more characteristically, with smaller and more climate-limited fires. They don't burn until the weather conditions exist to allow them, and when they do, they seldom spiral into enormous infernos. According to the Idaho Department of Lands, only 182 fires burned 4,674 acres in that region this year, meeting the 20-year average for fire occurrence and coming in at just more than half the average for acreage burned.

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