Panorama fire cost: $400,000 | AspenTimes.com

Panorama fire cost: $400,000

Cash-strapped fire chiefs and sheriffs downvalley probably won’t learn until next winter how much money was sucked from their budgets while fighting the Panorama fire in Missouri Heights.

The calculators are still crunching numbers, but a very rough estimate placed the firefighting effort at $400,000, according to Basalt Fire Chief Scott Thompson.

The biggest expense – and one that local authorities hope the feds will cover – is for multiple passes by air tankers dropping fire retardant.

Garfield County Sheriff Tom Dalessandri said that during the firefighting effort July 31 and Aug. 1, C-130 tankers dropped 11 loads of slurry while making multiple passes over Missouri Heights.

The 1,600-acre fire was on private land, so there is some uncertainty about who will pay. Technically, Garfield and Eagle counties were responsible for the fire suppression, according to John Denison, regional forester with the Colorado State Forest Service.

However, the state has established two special funds to help cover the expenses, and those funds often get partially replenished by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Denison.

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One fund is called the Initial Air Agreement. It guarantees that one-half of the expense of air tanker use will be covered for up to a total of $5,000. It’s designed to encourage counties to call in support from air tankers early in a firefighting effort, when they are most effective.

More than 50 counties, including those of the Roaring Fork Valley, also pay into the state-organized Emergency Fire Fund. Counties can apply to tap into that pool when a fire is too big and costly for them to tackle alone. The Colorado State Forest Service administers that fund.

FEMA often pays back up to 75 percent of the expenses spent through that fund, according to Denison. So the local entities get reimbursed for firefighting through a state-administered fund and the feds reimburse the state.

The Panorama fire was tackled by the Basalt and Carbondale fire departments as well as the Eagle County and Garfield County sheriff’s offices.

They were assisted by the air tankers, a helicopter and a 20-member hand crew. Other expenses included hiring heavy-equipment contractors to help scrape fire breaks, providing fuel for fire engines and equipment, and food for firefighters who spent hours on the lines, Thompson said.

The expense of fighting the Panorama fire was low, Denison said, because it was handled by local entities. No federal fire management team was called in because local firefighters got the blaze contained so quickly.

The fire destroyed two homes and a residential tepee. Two other houses and multiple sheds, garages and barns were damaged. No one was injured.

Denison said it is highly unlikely that the four local entities will be stuck with the expense of the air tankers or helicopter. Air tanker expenses alone could be $5,000 per load dropped, he said.

Final accounting by federal officials won’t be completed for months, so the sheriffs and fire chiefs will be sweating it out, said Thompson. He knows the Basalt fire district will incur some costs, but hopes they won’t top $20,000.

The feds have a lot of bills to sort through this season. In Colorado alone there were 400,000 acres burned and $131 million spent in firefighting through July 23, according to Denison.

[Scott Condon’s e-mail address is scondon@aspentimes.com]

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