Firefighting costs for Lake Christine, others in White River forest topped $40M
There were four major fires in the White River National Forest this summer and 31 additional blazes. Here is the estimated firefighting expense for the four big ones.
Lake Christine Fire, Basalt and El Jebel; $17.1 million
Cabin Lake Fire, Meeker area; $13.2 million
Cache Creek Fire, outside of Rifle; $6.3 million
Buffalo Fire, Summit County; $2.15 million
It cost an estimated $39 million to snuff four major fires in the White River National Forest this summer, including the one that threatened Basalt and El Jebel, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
“That’s just the big fires. The little fires cost money, too,” said White River National Forest Supervisor Scott Fitzwilliams.
The cost of numerous smaller fires pushed the estimated firefighting expense over $40 million — easily a record amount for the 2.3 million-acre national forest that stretches from Independence Pass to the Flat Tops and Rifle to Summit County.
The forest experienced 35 wildfires, with the latest flaring up Thursday 14 miles northwest of Dotsero. Eight of the fires were human-caused.
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The Lake Christine Fire, which started July 3, burned 12,566 acres, mostly in the Basalt State Wildlife Area and on Basalt Mountain. That was the most expensive fire on the White River National Forest by a wide margin. The firefighting expense is estimated at $17.1 million.
The Cabin Lake Fire near Meeker cost $13.2 million, the Cache Creek Fire near Rifle cost $6.3 million and the Buffalo Fire in Summit County cost $2.15 million.
It’s been an unusual fire season in the diverse forest. The latest fire flared up Thursday as Arapahoe Basin ski area prepared to open for the season Friday, Fitzwilliams noted. Rain and snow have saturated the area since Oct. 1 but dry grasses remain susceptible to fire.
The total firefighting expense could go higher as final bills are paid.
“The books aren’t closed yet,” Fitzwilliams said.
The estimated $40 million tab won’t be paid fully by the federal government, at least not directly. The feds have a cost-sharing arrangement with state and local governments, depending on the location of lands that were burned. However, state and local governments often apply for and receive federal assistance.
Basalt-Snowmass Village Fire Chief Scott Thompson previously told The Aspen Times that the expense to the department of fighting the Lake Christine Fire will be negligible due to cost-sharing agreements.
On the federal side, the funds spent on firefighting don’t come out of the White River National Forest’s budget. There is a nationwide fund established for firefighting on public lands.
However, as more resources are needed in that fund because of widespread fires in the West, fewer funds are allocated to the agency’s regular budget.
The big unknown is whether this summer was an aberration on the White River National Forest or a new normal for conditions.
“We know droughts like this go more than one year,” Fitzwilliams said. “That’s worrisome.”
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The coronavirus threat delayed the opening of developed campgrounds in the Roaring Fork, Fryingpan and Crystal valleys. The Forest Service will phase them back in by June 12.