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Devastating California wildfires predicted to cost US economy $85 billion; Containment may take weeks

By Brian Lada, AccuWeather meteorologist and staff writer
October 15, 2017, 1:35:04 PM EDT

Devastating fires charring California have claimed more lives than any fire in the state's history, and the economic toll is predicted to climb to $85 billion.

"These wildfires, especially in Northern California, are particularly devastating,” said Dr. Joel N. Myers, founder, president and chairman of AccuWeather.

“We estimate the California wildfires will profoundly affect the economy of California. The cost to contain and fight the fire and deal with the aftermath will be in the billions. And, the loss in tax revenue from businesses no longer around, including the vineyards; the workers who have lost their jobs and can no longer pay taxes as well as other impacts will be quite costly. This will create a hole in the California budget, which may necessitate an increase in taxes. If California has to borrow more this might negatively impact its bond ratings and it will have to pay higher interest rates on all borrowings, which can cost upwards of 10s of billions of dollars. At this time, we estimate the economic impact of the fires is already approaching $70 billion dollars. Based on our forecast the total costs from this disaster on the economy would exceed $85 billion and, if the fires are not contained in the next couple of weeks, the total economic impact could even reach $100 billion.”

This past week has yielded the deadliest outbreak of wildfires across Northern California, surpassing the 29 fatalities caused by the 1933 Griffith Park Fire. The wildfire complex alone near Santa Rosa killed at least 22 people.

Cal Fire estimated that 5,700 homes and other structures have been destroyed, and approximately 100,000 people had evacuated. The number of evacuees dropped to nearly 75,000 on Sunday morning.

Aerial view of CA fire 10/11 (AP)

Burned out homes are seen in the Coffey Park area Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017, in Santa Rosa, Calif. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

It could take three to four weeks to fully contain the fires burning around Santa Rosa.

A reduction in the winds across Northern California will aid firefighters battling the blazes early this week, but low humidity and warm air will persist and allow the fires to burn quickly through the dry vegetation.

Rain, cooler air and increased humidity will arrive by Thursday night and Friday, further improving conditions.

However, winds may strengthen again before and after the rainfall, hampering efforts to reach containment.

Besides weather conditions, other factors like resources, including manpower and equipment, as well as terrain, can all play a role on fire containment. If additional wildfires ignite, that could further strain resources.

2017 wildfire season to go down in record books; USDA at 'a tipping point' due to budget woes

According to the National Interagency Fire Center, more than 51,000 fires have scorched over 8.5 million acres of the U.S. so far in 2017, as of Oct. 13.

Even before the sudden explosion of wildfires in California, federal wildfire suppression costs had already skyrocketed to unprecedented levels.

“As of October 2, 2017, the Forest Service has spent $2.410 billion on fire suppression operations for fiscal year 2017,” the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) said in their weekly update.

With suppression costs exceeding $2 billion, this is the most that the USDA has ever spent on wildfire suppression in one year. However, this figure only includes federal spending on wildfire suppression and not the suppression costs by state and municipal agencies.

The Associated Press reported on Sunday that half of California's $469 million emergency fund for large wildfires has already been used in the last three months for firefighting costs.

Some of the largest and longest-burning wildfires of the year occurred across the Pacific Northwest in late August and early September. Winds carried the smoke from these fires all across North America.

“We are breaking records in terms of dollars spent, acres of National Forest land burned and the increased duration of fires,” Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke said.

wildfire smoke

This satellite image from Sep. 5, 2017 shows smoke from fires burning across the western United States and British Columbia stretching across the United States. The red dots are satellite-detected fires. (Image/EOSDIS/Terra/MODIS)

Every year, the budget for the USDA includes money to help battle wildfires, but in recent years, the amount budgeted for wildfire suppression has not been enough.

“In many years, fighting fires costs more than was planned for that year, requiring mid-season transfers of additional dollars from already depleted accounts to pay for firefighting," the USDA said.

In some cases, this means taking money away from projects that are meant to help prevent catastrophic fires in the future.

“The growth in fire suppression costs has steadily consumed an ever-increasing portion of the agency’s appropriated budget,” the USDA said. “The agency is at a tipping point.”

Photos: Massive wildfires destroy California wineries as smoke billows ominously over Disneyland
How inhaling wildfire smoke can wreak havoc on your health
Strong winds, building heat to hinder California firefighting efforts into early this week

Earlier this year, a new bill was introduced in the Senate called the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act.

If passed, this bill would help to reform how wildfire suppression is funded and would limit the current method of transferring money from other projects for the use of wildfire suppression.

California Senator Dianne Feinstein, who helped to introduce the bill, told Congress, “it’s long past time we treat wildfires like other natural disasters and allow federal agencies to pay for them like other natural disasters.”

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