By Matthew Renda
(CN) – With rain finally headed toward Southern California this week, the state’s worst wildfire season ever may finally end if precipitation snuffs out what’s left of the largest fire in California history still smoldering in the back country.
The complete containment of the last large fire of 2017 will finally allow officials to tally the costs to taxpayers, most of which is related to fire suppression. And the final figures will show the past season was the most expensive ever.
“This is new territory,” said Cal Fire spokesman Scott McLean.
The Thomas Fire – a nearly 300,000-acre fire that scorched vast swathes of Santa Barbara and Ventura counties is one of several California wildfires with hefty costs to taxpayers, both in the state and throughout the nation.
While the Thomas Fire is the state’s largest in terms of acres burned, the blazes that ripped through the Wine Country counties of Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino this past October, were the most destructive.
All told, some media outlets have estimated the total cost, from fire suppression to insurance and recovery expenditures, at $180 billion. The number includes economic harm to the wine industry, where several legacy wineries in Napa and Sonoma were utterly destroyed and many wine grapes were severely damaged by smoke.
But the cost to taxpayers, who foot the bill for fire suppression through state and federal taxes, is significant on its own.
Cal Fire spent $700 million during the current fiscal year, a number far exceeding the approximately $426 million the agency had budgeted for fire suppression.
McLean said the agency can be nimble with its budget, with the help of a Legislature that is keenly aware of the unprecedented nature of the past wildfire season.
“The state understands what is taking place,” he said. “We have five years of severe drought, followed by an extremely wet year that led to a lot of growth in the underbrush. Put the two together and it promotes fire.”
Cal Fire has spent nearly half its budget allocation on the Thomas Fire alone, with fire suppression costs estimated at $175 million. The Tubbs Fire that devastated the city of Santa Rosa cost the agency about $100 million.
Other fires in the Wine Country that burned along with the Tubbs Fire were also costly. The Atlas Fire cost $59 million. The Redwood Complex in Mendocino County racked up $24 million in suppression costs. And many other areas of California saw blazes erupt in the wildland, including moderately sized fires in Nevada, Yuba and Santa Cruz counties which would’ve garnered more attention in a normal year.
“I’ve been with Cal Fire for 20 years and in terms of erratic fire behavior combined with extreme weather conditions, I haven’t seen anything like it,” McLean said.
California taxpayers won’t be alone in seeing their pockets dented by the extreme nature of the fire season. The U.S. Forest Service is still working on its estimates for the year in California, but early estimates showed it spent $16 million on the Wine Country fires and $14 million on the Thomas Fire.
Since the forest service is now in charge of mop-up on the Thomas Fire those estimates will almost certainly rise, said Cheryl Carrothers, spokeswoman for the service’s Pacific Southwest region.
“Incident costs take several months or sometimes years to be fully accounted for, and based on the figures I think aviation costs are not yet reflected in the total,” she said.
Those totals also do not reflect the costs incurred by other federal agencies with firefighting divisions, including the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service, Carrothers said.
The federal government spent $2.35 billion on fire suppression in fiscal year 2017, and with fires raging throughout the American West – particularly in California and Montana – that tally will likely increase.
Those costs, particularly as it relates to the forest service, are particularly burdensome for the agency and makes it harder for managers to allocate money to other vital aspects of forest management. In 1995, fire suppression accounted for 19 percent of the agency’s budget. In 2015, it made up half.
“As more and more of the agency’s resources are spent each year to provide the firefighters, aircraft, and other assets necessary to protect lives, property, and natural resources from catastrophic wildfires, fewer and fewer funds and resources are available to support other agency work – including the very programs and restoration projects that reduce the fire threat,” a 2015 report released by the forest service said.
While taxpayers bear the brunt of fire suppression costs, the price tag of property damage is significant. The Wine Country fires rank as the costliest in terms of property damage in the history of California, with state Insurance Commissioner Dave Jones pegging insured losses at $9 billion.
“These numbers not only represent staggering losses to tens of thousands of Californians,” Jones said. “The October wildfires that devastated whole communities and tragically cost 44 people their lives have now proven to be the most destructive and deadliest in our state’s history.”
The statewide total released in December ran $9.4 billion. That number is expected to spike significantly once the tally for the Thomas Fire is finalized: it destroyed at least 1,063 structures, damaged 280 others and ranks as the seventh most destructive fire in California history.
McLean says destructive wildfires like California saw in 2017 could be frequent if the Golden State’s winters don’t regularly provide enough precipitation.
“It could be several more years before we get the moisture content back to normal,” he said.
And with a bone-dry December and paltry snowpack kicking off the new year, 2018 could be another year that blackens California and leaves taxpayers with yet another hefty bill.
The United States hit a record for costly weather disasters in 2017, with wildfires, hurricanes, drought, flooding and tornadoes costing taxpayers $306 million according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The nation saw 16 disasters with damage exceeding $1 billion, and the total cost blew past the 2005 record of $215 billion.