Burning through money: Historic wildfire season could bring historic price tag

Fire data tracked by the Idaho Department of Lands.

By Ruth Brown and Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

A massive wildfire season will cost the state tens of millions of dollars, and the state agency in charge of land management is telling policy makers to prepare for more fire-filled summers in coming years.

On Wednesday, Idaho Department of Lands Director Dustin Miller spoke to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee about his agency’s budget request, pointing out that it would be higher than the last fiscal year because of those fires.

In the 2021 fire season, the number of wildfires in the state was 131% above the 20-year average, while the number of acres burned was 565% above the 20-year average.

At the end of the fiscal year, IDL had spent about $1.4 million more than it had budgeted for in its fire deficiency fund, due to the extraordinary season, 

Miller gave a similar presentation to the Idaho Land Board on Tuesday, where he attributed this year’s long fire season to a combination of drought and an increase in recreation on public lands. Of the 395 wildfires recorded in 2021, 240 were caused by humans. Those fires burned about 142,000 acres, most of which were on state land.

“It was a big fire season for us,” he told the board, adding he anticipates more human-caused fires in coming years as Idaho’s population grows.

“The concern there is with demographics changing and with more people moving into the state, recreating on endowment lands or federal lands or elsewhere, there’s a higher likelihood of unplanned ignitions or unwanted human-caused fires. That’s something we pay close attention to,” Miller said. 

When possible, the state pursues damages from those responsible for starting fires, he added. Recently, IDL and the attorney general’s office recovered about $1.5 million from the individual responsible for starting the Strychnine Fire in 2017. 

The department is currently in the process of hiring a fire investigation manager. 

This year, IDL estimates that emergency fire suppression expenditures hit about $74.6 million. Of that, about $7.2 million is reimbursable from other agencies, meaning the state must still pay an estimated $67.4 million. That money pays for contracted aircraft, engines, and crews. 

When the legislature is not in session, IDL goes through the Land Board for the funding for combating wildfires. That money comes from deficiency warrants approved by the Land Board. 

The Land Board is granted the authority for fire suppression purposes under the Idaho Forestry Act.

Miller said his goal was to modernize the department, and increase the pay of his starting firefighters to $15 an hour, matching the amount that the federal government pays firefighters. 

Miller told the joint budget committee he anticipates “larger, longer and more severe fire seasons” across the western United States. 

IDL is also requesting additional full-time positions and funds to reopen the Cottonwood District, which previously closed. The budget also requests new fire equipment and drone equipment. 

In total, the fiscal year 2023 budget request is about $3.8 million more than the fiscal year 2022 budget request, an increase of 5.8 percent. 

The committee will not vote on any budget changes until the Idaho Legislature returns in 2022.

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