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The Cost Of A Fire

August 19, 2012, 9:59 PM by Austin Hoffman

The Cost Of A Fire

This year's wildfire season had an early start and only intensified as the summer heated up and rains were few and far between. And each of those fires has come at a tremendous cost; both environmentally and financially.

The first wildfires of 2012 lit up the Black Hills in March. The season traditionally doesn't start until late July or August.

"Got the chance to knock the rust off really early in the season and get right after it and there was no rest for the wicked. We were real busy," South Dakota's Director of Wildland Fire Jay Esperance said.

Esperance says his crews were battling two or four fires a day in early spring. That number continued and even rose in some cases throughout the year. 

"I'm thinking we probably get 98% of the fires we catch small so they don't get big. But a couple of them did get big," Esperance said.

One of the most recent large fires was the Myrtle Fire that burned near Pringle, South Dakota.

According to inciweb.com, a website that tracks wildfires, its estimated cost was around $4 million.

"Where the point of origin is, it is that agency owner is responsible for the payment of the fire. If it burns from one agency to another agency or one persons property or another persons property then we have to go into negotiations on who's going to pay what proportion," Esperance said.

The money adds up quickly. He says a 20 person hand crew on a fire for one day costs around $2,500. And a typical fire truck runs about $500 a day.

"You see those retardant planes coming and dropping that retardant, those are costing us about $2,500 a load, each time an air tanker you see out there. Those big types on helicopters, those big sky cranes that you often see in the air, they can run a couple thousand dollars an hour," Esperance said.

And for every three people on the fire line, he says there's generally one person behind the scenes providing logistical support. And it doesn't just affect crews from the Black Hills.

"One for probably four or five days, six days and the other one just three or four days," Harrisburg Fire Chief Bill Fink said.

Fink says they've sent crews to the Black Hills twice this summer. But it comes at no expense to his fire department.

"The truck gets so much per hour, the time it leaves the station here to the time it gets back. They get travel time and the time while out there working and the guy that go get paid per hour as well," Fink said.

Fink says some of the firefighters look forward to heading to the Black Hills. It's a change of pace and puts some extra money in the department’s pocket.

"Departments actually look forward to going out there and getting a little extra income that we don't get from our normal budgets, our cities and townships, so its kind of nice to have that little extra money to buy new equipment or build something new. It helps them out," Fink says.

If the fire is on federal land, Esperance says the federal government does pay the bill to fight it. But for state fires, he says they're actually deficit spending.

"We start at zero and start working our self into the hole. And what we do, at the end of the year, we go to the legislature and say, can you make us whole, will you reimburse us for these costs for fighting fire," Esperance said.

It's the reason why he says they look at every decision very closely to make sure it's the smartest move they can make because at the end of the year, it will be under the scrutiny of the legislature.

"I better have a dog gone good reason for that and that's why were contentious from the get go," Esperance said.

Because after all, the cost of that forest fire started by a flicked cigarette or unwatched camp fire is coming out of the taxpayer’s pocket book.

Firefighters from South Dakota also go around the country helping other states. And those states usually send crews to South Dakota to return the favor. Some firefighters have even come all the way from Australia to help out.

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