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August 25, 2008 1:57 pm

What does $6 million buy?

Written by Tribune Staff

The cost for management of the Gunbarrel Fire is about $6.6 million so far.
Since the fire started July 26, 54,000 acres have been charred, and the fire doesn't show much sign of slowing.
In fact, the fire has grown significantly in the last few days.
And as it continues to burn, encroaching on private land, the goal of allowing the fire to play its role in the ecosystem has been changed in favor of suppression on the east end.
With the change, costs promise to rise even faster, and it begs the question: What has $6.6 million done so far?
The answer comes in many forms.
A pup-tent city, 200+ people strong, has grown near the Wapiti Ranger Station.
It's filled with the people who spend their days cutting timber, lighting back-fires, clearing fire lines and running hoses and sprinklers — up the sides of mountains, in 90-degree heat, no less.
The same crews patrol the North Fork, around the clock, to make sure cabins and other structures are protected.
Hotshot crews battle on the front lines.
Fifteen engines and three water tenders are in service.
There are four helicopters dropping water and flame retardant on the fire, trip after trip, for most of the daylight hours.
Four air tanker planes arrived Sunday to spread water and flame retardant in larger amounts.
A special plane flies the area after dark nearly every night, utilizing infrared technology to map the fire — the largest wild-land use fire in U.S. history.
In short, there's a lot of activity on the North Fork.
The 200+ people who have left their homes and families in many other states to work the Gunbarrel Fire eat, shower, and sleep in the camp near the ranger station. Taxpayers aren't footing the bill for fancy hotels and cushy beds.
They do their jobs, at the risk of injury or worse.
Only two days ago a fire spokesperson said, “It is neither safe, nor effective, to try to stop the fire's spread directly. The terrain is too steep and complex, the weather is too dry and periodically windy, and there are too many dead trees. Instead, time and money are being focused where they can be useful, near houses and other improvements.”
Now suppression, at least on the east end, will begin.
With the only property losses so far a single doghouse and an unoccupied Forest Service property, firefighters' hard work so far appears to have been successful.
The price tag of course is high, and climbing. With the new goals, the price will rise faster than ever. But at a cost to date of $117 per acre, the money is well spent.