California fire becomes the most expensive in history

Firefighters have been battling the Soberanes Fire for two months.

Novato Fire District firefighter Kyle Marshall sprays a spot while fighting fires in Big Sur, CA. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TERRY CHEA
Novato Fire District firefighter Kyle Marshall sprays a spot while fighting fires in Big Sur, CA. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/TERRY CHEA

Firefighters in California continue to battle the Soberanes Fire near Big Sur, which recently became the most expensive wildfire in United States history. The blaze, which has been burning for almost two months, has cost $208.4 million to fight as of September 20, according to the Associated Press.

The fire began on July 22, with an illegal, unattended campfire. As of Friday, the fire was 71 percent contained. More than 2,000 firefighters are battling the fire, which has burned 121,000 acres, making it the 20th largest fire in California’s history.

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The fire has become the most expensive in history due largely to the amount of time that it has burned, and the cost of paying firefighters to fight and contain the blaze on a daily basis. According to the Associated Press, the total cost does not include damage to structures or homes caused by the fire, and is not adjusted for inflation — when adjusted for inflation, it falls well below the $165 million cost of fighting the 2002 Biscuit Fire, which was previously the most expensive fire in U.S. history.

California has faced a fierce fire season so far this year, with more than 5,000 fires having burned since the start of the season. The state, which is still in the midst of a massive drought, has suffered from reduced snowpack and precipitation, leading to drier forests that fuel larger wildfires. Globally, fire seasons have gotten longer and the amount of land burned has almost doubled in size over the last 35 years, according to a study published last year in Nature Communications. In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service spent $1.71 billion fighting fires across the country, making it the most expensive fire season in U.S. history.

The Forest Service, on average, spends about $1.3 billion fighting fires each year, though that number has been steadily increasing. As climate change continues to create ideal conditions for wildfires — with less snowpack, dry vegetation, and longer, hotter summers — the Forest Service has warned that it could be pushed to a “tipping point” with their resources. In a report released last year, the agency noted that in 2015, for the first time, wildfire suppression accounted for more than half of their budget, forcing them to siphon money from other important areas — like forest management, which can help prevent wildfires before they actually start — in order to pay for fighting fires.

“In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service spent $1.71 billion fighting fires across the country, making it the most expensive fire season in U.S. history.”

“Climate change has led to fire seasons that are now on average 78 days longer than in 1970,” the report said. “The U.S. burns twice as many acres as three decades ago and Forest Service scientists believe the acreage burned may double again by mid-century. Increasing development in fire-prone areas also puts more stress on the Forest Service’s suppression efforts.”

The agency has estimated that by 2025, the cost of fighting wildfires could rise to $1.8 billion annually.