Who Pays? Breaking Down the Red Canyon Fire and its $1 Million Price Tag

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5min 13sec
A total of 70 firefighters helped fight the Red Canyon blaze, which burned 390 acres.
Credit Marci Krivonen
A total of 70 firefighters helped fight the Red Canyon blaze, which burned 390 acres.

Once again this summer, the Western United States saw plenty of forest fires. Some continue to burn. When the flames are extinguished, the dollar signs emerge, and states handle fire suppression costs differently. In Colorado, it depends on what kind of land is burning and how big the blaze is.

In the case of the Red Canyon Fire, a relatively small fire that burned in August near Glenwood Springs, the final tab was more than $1 million. That’s how much it costs to bring firefighters in from out of state and put helicopters in the sky. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports. 

On day three of the Red Canyon Fire, generators hummed near a field dotted with tents. Firefighters decked in yellow and green were maintaining their temporary living quarters just outside an elementary school. DJ Perea is from New Mexico. He’s part of the ground support team.

"I can go up on the line and I can do ground support here, (like) taking care of the can, making sure everything’s looking good and keeping it clean," he says.

Perea is part of a Type Two team that was called to the blaze after it grew in size.

"It may go directly to a Type Two management like this one did, due to complexity, nearness to buildings and towns and that sort of thing," says Bill Kight.

He's the spokesman for this fire. When the fire’s management transitioned from local agencies to the Type Two team, many resources came with it.

"The people (and) in this case, some 55 people had to fly and drive here, already a caterer has been ordered, and helicopters and tankers have been ordered, and so, that process is already in the middle of happening and that’s where the cost comes in," Kight says.

In the end, the cost of the team and its fire suppression efforts totaled $1, 026,000. So, just where did that money come from? That’s where it gets complex.

In this case, three agencies are getting stuck with the bill. And, it’s sort of domino effect, starting with one of the first agencies to respond to fire, which lightning sparked on August 11th. Jim Sears is with the Garfield County Sheriff’s Office.

"So, if a fire starts on a fire district’s property, technically they’re responsible for the cost of that fire, and if it gets out of their capability of handling it themselves, then we could take over the fire and we would be responsible for the costs," Sears says.

The Red Canyon Fire started in the Glenwood Springs’ fire district and grew, so the Sheriff’s Office stepped in. Then, it became larger and required more resources, so the Type Two team took over. Bill Kight says it includes seasoned firefighters.

"The team is made up of all sorts of agencies, from federal agencies like the Park Service, the Forest Service, US Fish and Wildlife Service, and Bureau of Indian Affairs. It’s also composed of local fire departments," he says.

Fire behavior specialists and meteorologists were are also brought in. Before this team arrived, a phone call was made in the middle of the night.

"In this particular case, the governor had to be woken up at one in the morning to sign the emergency firefighter permission for us to proceed," Kight says.

Governor Hickenlooper’s approval unlocked state funds. First up is the state’s Emergency Fire Fund, or EFF. About 4 dozen counties contribute to this fund. It puts firefighters and equipment on the ground in complex fires. Problem is, says Jim Sears, the fund zero’s out fast.

"It’s a fund that can get used up fairly quickly if you have really big fires at the first of the year, it’s a fund that if you don’t have big fires, some of these smaller ones can benefit from."

The EFF had just $1 million at the start of 2013. Fires early in the year easily blew through it. So, next in line was the Disaster Emergency Fund. It takes money from the state’s budget. Luckily, says Sears, there’s always a fall-back.

"I’ve never had an experience where they’ve said, we’re out of money and we can’t do anything for you. They’ve always, if it was going to go that way and the EFF fund was out, they always found money somewhere."

So, here’s how the final tally shakes out: Garfield County is picking up the firefighting costs before the governor signed over control to the state. The state will pay for suppression expenses on roughly half of the burn area - the part that scorched private land. The Bureau of Land Management will pick up the bill for the blackened plot on federal land.

That breakdown is similar to how firefighting is paid for around Colorado but, that equation can get even more complicated with larger blazes, like the Black Forest Fire. The fire burned near Colorado Springs in June and cost an estimated 13 million dollars to fight. Even though the 14,280 acre blaze burned on private land, federal dollars streamed in. In fact, FEMA picked up about 75 percent of the cost. The state paid for the remainder of the bill through its Disaster Emergency fund. Once again, that pot of money was used because the fund meant to pay for such disasters, the EFF, was already used up.