Cost of Grass Fires in Okla. Continues to Mount

State officials began the arduous task of assessing the cost of weeks of wildfires as a cold front and higher humidity gave firefighters a much-needed break from battling fields of flames and red-hot embers.

Gov. Brad Henry said the head of the state’s Division of Forestry has estimated his agency is spending an average of more than $100,000 a day to battle wildfires that have scorched almost 414,000 acres and destroyed more than 250 homes and businesses since Nov. 1.

The estimate does not include expenses incurred by local fire departments and other local, state and federal agencies involved in the firefighting effort.

“It’s an expensive undertaking,” Henry said. “Nobody knows for sure right now what the entire cost is.”

“It’s not cheap to fight fires day after day after day with no end in sight,” said Paul Sund, Henry’s communications director. “We know the bill’s coming and we’re going to be prepared to pay it.”
John Burwell, director of the Forestry Division of the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture, Food and Forestry, said his agency spent $1.4 million fighting grass fires across the state in a 10-day period in early January.

“This was an unanticipated expense. We’re spending money we don’t have,” Burwell told The Shawnee News-Star. Burwell has previously said that 97 percent of his budget was spent by the end of December.

“Each time an air tanker makes a drop, it costs $10,000,” Burwell said. Several of the large planes were dispatched to the state after grass fires broke out in December. Each can drop about 3,000 gallons of retardant on a fire before reloading.

President Bush issued a federal disaster declaration for Oklahoma, authorizing the Federal Emergency Management Agency to pay 75 percent of the cost of battling the blazes and provide temporary housing for Oklahomans whose homes were destroyed. The state and local governments must pay the balance.

The declaration gave immediate access to federal funding for affected individuals in 12 Oklahoma counties. Officials said other counties may be added.

More than $215,000 in federal grants already has been approved for 56 Oklahoma residents affected by wildfires, according to FEMA officials.

“This money will help displaced families cover the costs of renting a place to live as they either rebuild their homes or find another permanent place to live,” said FEMA’s federal coordinating officer Philip E. Parr.

An additional 155 Oklahomans have applied for federal and state disaster assistance.

While firefighters spent most of the morning Jan. 16 mopping up hot spots, about 20 smaller fires across the state flared up throughout the afternoon, burning across an estimated 2,000 acres, fire officials said.

The largest fire burned about 250 acres near Sperry after the area reignited following a wildfire the previous day, but there were no reports of injuries or structure damage.

Firefighters also continued to monitor the remnants of a stubborn grass fire near Stillwater as cooler weather and a chance of rain combined to give firefighting crews relief from grass fires that have claimed two lives in the state.

“Things are looking good today,” said Richard Reuse, fire information officer at the state’s incident command center in Shawnee. “Relative humidity is a real key for firefighting.”

The Stillwater fire was one of at least 18 wildfires that firefighters battled over the weekend that were fueled by high winds and dry conditions. The fire scorched 580 acres before it was contained early Monday, said fire information officer Mark Bays.

Bays said firefighters continued to monitor the area Monday afternoon to prevent the fire from flaring up again.

Forecasters said a cold front that brought cloudy skies to the state will also bring a chance of rain overnight, mainly in the eastern half of the state. Some thunderstorms could be severe with damaging winds and large hail.

“We can only hope for a lot of rain,” Bays said. “A little bit won’t get us where we want to go.”