Total cost for controlling Alaska's wildfires could top $100 million

Posted: Sunday, October 31, 2004

FAIRBANKS - The bill for Alaska's fire season could come to more than $106 million to be split between the state and federal government, according to fire officials' preliminary estimates.

That would be a record amount on top of the record-setting 6.7 million acres that burned across the state between June and October.

"I would say without a doubt this is the most expensive fire season for the state," said Rick Dupuris, the state Division of Forestry coordinator at the Alaska Interagency Coordination Center on Fort Wainwright.

About 15 fires are still burning, although the fire season has been declared over.

Only recently have fire officials been able to tally the damage, and the amount will likely fluctuate before the final cost is known, said federal and state fire officials. But preliminary estimates show the state will pay about $48 million and the federal Department of the Interior about $58 million.

The most costly summer until now was in 1996, when firefighting efforts totaled more than $71 million.

This year, many fires burned near roads and homes, making it necessary to protect communities and the tourism industry and driving up the costs, said Joe Stam, chief of fire and aviation for the state Division of Forestry.

"We fought just portions of the fires to protect structures and communities," Stam said. "If we had tried to put them out, it would have been much more higher."

After the final 2004 cost is totaled, federal and state agencies will exchange bills charging each other for fighting fires that encroached onto the other's lands and for the cost of using crews or aircraft.

At the peak of the firefighting efforts, there were 2,711 people in the field and Alaska had support coming from 49 states, two Canadian provinces and two territories.

"(That is) quite a high number considering that so many of them had to be supplied off road," Dupuris said. "When we have 1,000 people that we're supporting in the field, that's considered a lot."

Fire officials have scheduled a series of public meetings beginning next week to educate people about fire management policies and also get feedback that could influence fire management policies.

Many residents were upset that fires were allowed to burn early on, only to bloom into hazards later.

Stam hopes for high attendance at meetings that usually draw little notice.

"We always do (reviews) during the winter. There's no smoke in the air and people are just not interested," Stam said. "We want the involvement."

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