August 29, 2013 | Vol. 117 -- No. 19

Cause of Depot Springs Road fire still undetermined

Better forest management practices can cut costs, reduce property damage

The math is pretty striking when one does some simple calculations about last Tuesday’s wildfire off of Depot Springs Road south of Cheney.

Paul Delaney
Spokane County Fire District No. 3 crews had the largest contingent of apparatus onsite to battle the 50-acre Depot Springs fire.

The preliminary estimated cost to fight the 50-acre blaze that consumed a mix of private pasture and forest was between $150,000-$200,000, or $3,000-$4,000 per acre.

The cause is still being investigated.

“That was turned over to DNR (Department of Natural Resources),” Spokane County District 3 Fire Chief Bruce Holloway said. “It was a DNR fire so they investigated it, they have not said.”

While winds did pick up during the afternoon and had the potential to send the fire roaring, the territory it burned was a big help to crews.

“Luckily, the way it laid the fuel was what kind of helped us because it kind of burned in between two alfalfa fields,” Holloway said. “That helped crews control it better.”

It was close to getting into some meadows and the chances of it spreading were “pretty slim because of that,” Holloway said.

Dry and poorly managed stands of pine provided the flip side and the potential for it to take off. “Where it was able to burn in the trees, it was burning pretty darn good,” he said. The columns of smoke went from light brown to occasionally black, an indication that the flames were torching fuel-rich trees.

That’s where fires like these get both expensive – and dangerous.

The blaze was reported about noon Aug. 20 and units from multiple jurisdictions responded. But no one was better represented than crews from District 3.

There were approximately 22 fire fighting vehicles involved last Tuesday. Of those DNR had about six. “We had all but one of ours; we had 11, we had one here in the district to cover,” Holloway said.

Holloway put his pencil to work to give a thumbnail accounting of the cost, just to District 3.

The engines run approximately $100 per hour, just for the vehicle and personnel on top of it. Holloway’s people were on the fire lines for nine hours. His quick estimate was $15,000 in just engines. “That’s just the initial attack,” he said.

The 55 district personnel assigned to the fire, plus equipment penciled out at about $29,000, plus five hours of overhead pushed that to $35,000. “I’m thinking we had almost $70,000 in the first nine hours,” Holloway said.

DNR had three planes involved. The retardant and water dropping aircraft can run a minimum of $1,500 or more an hour according to Craig Smith from Smith Flying Service, an area agriculture-spraying business.

Holloway said the mop-up phase, which lasted three days, pushed the cost into the low six-figure range. But he would like to see money spent in the area of prevention, not reaction.

The area of the fire included what Holloway called, “reproduction,” trees, the small, spindly species that naturally propagate on stands which are not well managed.

They present serious challenges to firefighters and add tremendous cost to battling blazes.

There’s a nationwide push on fuels management because it’s such a critical element in being able to control fire, Holloway said.

“We’re spending millions and millions of dollars – billions of dollars this year in this country – fighting fires,” Holloway said.

If more of that money was spent in fuel management, in other words thinning some of the massive amounts of acreage choked with reproductive trees, reducing the fuel loading, Holloway said, “We wouldn’t be having to spend the kind of money we do fighting them.”

Fires that burn through managed forests are easier to control and generally do not do a lot of damage,, he said. The Turnbull Wildlife Refuge is an example of well-managed land.

“They’ve done a really good job of cutting down the junk stuff underneath, doing some logging to thin things,” Holloway said. “They’re trying to get these pine forests back to the old days.”

That’s when trees were spaced 30-50 feet apart. When a fire did erupt it burned the underbrush and the big trees are not affected.

“As long as they are limbed up they can tolerate that kind of fire without a problem,” Holloway explained.

Interested property owners can contact DNR to first find out if theirs is one of the areas that qualify for help. Some of the cost can be mitigated if landowners do some of the work themselves.

Paul Delaney can be reached at pdelaney@cheneyfreepress.com.

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