Study: Fire’s true cost was more than $152M

Limiting the price tag of the Missionary Ridge Fire to the $40.8 million cost of suppressing the blaze falls far short of the true financial impact, says the man who gathered numbers for a report by a Colorado State University professor.

The best reckoning of overall cost – suppression, rehabilitation and financial impacts – comes to $152.8 million, says Steve Kelly, a retired U.S. Forest Service employee.

Until his team went to work in 2004, no attempt had been made to set a value on hidden or indirect costs such as lost sales, wages and sales tax, the value of food and gifts to firefighters by appreciative townspeople and merchants, uninsured property loss and post-fire water treatment, said Kelly, who today lives in Cortez.

“No one had done a detailed analysis of the total cost of the Missionary Ridge Fire,” said Kelly, who spent seven months in 2004 gathering data. He talked to about 100 people.

The report by CSU professor Kurt Mackes appeared in the Journal of Testing and Evaluation.

“We did the report – using only verifiable figures – to show what the real cost was,” Kelly said. “We wanted to encourage people to do preparatory work so the next fire won’t be so severe.”

The peripheral costs are divided among three categories – suppression, rehabilitation and impact, Kelly said.

Among uncalculated direct, or suppression costs, were insured and uninsured property loss, Small Business Association loans, saleable timber burned, American Red Cross aid, destroyed La Plata Electric Association power lines and what the National Guard spent on personnel, helicopter and truck rental, and travel reimbursement.

Insured property loss (56 residences, 27 outbuildings) came to $17.7 million. Grants and loans for uninsured property loss reached $7 million.

These indirect costs push the price of suppression to $90.2 million instead of $40.8 million.

Post-fire rehabilitation – short- and long-term tree planting, debris-flow hazard mapping and archaeological site restoration – adds $8.6 million.

Among impact costs – a total of $50.4 million – are intangibles such as lost sales and property taxes, the lost income of businesses (including the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad and hotels and motels); lost campground fees and grazing permits; lost payroll receipts; and later, the cost of controlling non-native plants and repairing roads and culverts.

A special-value impact of $3.2 million was put on the life of the firefighter killed by a falling tree.

Kelly said the last number comes from formulas on risk to life and health calculated by W.K. Viscusi of Duke University.