Alaskan Wildfire Expenses At $14 Million And Climbing

FAIRBANKS (AP) -- The government has spent at least $14.4 million dollars so far on six major firefighting efforts in Interior Alaska, and that cost is expected to keep climbing.

``This is going to be an expensive fire year,'' said Joe Stam, chief of fire and aviation at the Alaska Division of Forestry. ``Any time you start bringing a lot of resources from the Lower 48 up, the cost goes up significantly.''

The most expensive fire season in Alaska was 1996 when the state and federal governments spent more than $71 million, mostly on the Miller's Reach Fire, which threatened hundreds of homes in the Big Lake area.

``All it takes is one big fire in civilization,'' said Pete Buist, Alaska Division of Forestry fire information officer.

Several fires fit that description this summer. The Boundary Fire came close to Haystack Mountain and took out 12 to 15 structures; the Wolf Creek Fire destroyed at least seven cabins and knocked on the door of Chena Hot Springs Resort; the Pingo Fire has been on the outskirts of Venetie for days; and Eagle had three blazes bearing down on it at once.

Fire costs includes a number of elements.

Firefighters make $11 to $35 an hour, depending on position, experience, risk and other factors, and work usually 16 hours a day, six or seven days a week.

Then there are equipment costs, transportation, meals, sleeping quarters, showers and a multitude of other items needed to support firefighters.

The firefighting air force is the most expensive part of the operation. Buist said to have a tanker available, sitting on the runway and ready to go on a moment's notice, costs $5,400 a day. If that tanker is pressed into service, the bill is $3,800 an hour.

In addition to the tankers, which are often the first component of an initial attack, fire officials use other planes and helicopters to fight the fires, map them and move people to and from a fire zone.

On average, Alaska firefighting efforts have cost $34 million a year over the last decade with a low of $16.5 million in 1994.

Unless a long, soaking rain begins falling soon to douse the flames, this year's costs will continue to rise as planes respond to new starts and firefighters work to control the blazes that have burned more than 2.3 million acres.

Karen Gordon, an Alaska Division of Forestry northern region administrator, said it could be months after the fires are out before all the costs are tallied.