Ragged cost: Wildfire tally nears quarter-million mark
As the criminal trial nears, tallies of suppression costs and property losses have begun in the so-called Ragged Mountain Fire, and the price-tag appears to have neared the quarter-million-dollar mark, including nearly $50,000 to extinguish the sprawling conflagration. Meanwhile, the late February blaze scorched 609 acres of terrain, according to an official with the Virginia Department of Forestry.
"We confirmed it with GPS," says David Powell, an assistant regional forester, who notes that an earlier estimate of over 800 acres included "initial containment lines" that were wider than what actually burned.
This fire– which began on a wind-whipped Saturday in a financially troubled subdivision– cost the Forestry Department $9,940, a figure that includes only the time and fuel expended for Department-mustered workers and equipment, not the efforts of the myriad other fire companies that pitched in.
If the cost– at $16 an acre– seems a little low, indeed it's less than one quarter of the $72 per acre five-year average the Department cites.
"We don't bill for investigative time or for education," explains Powell, "We only bill for actual time spent putting it out."
At the Ragged Mountain fire, which began under mysterious circumstances on February 19, Powell says the Department got help from crews from Charlottesville, Augusta, and Nelson, plus various volunteer and career companies from Albemarle.
The Forestry Department's effort included a pair of bulldozers and three full-time employees on the fire's first two days with assistance from six part-timers and a Department fire engine. Reductions in men and machine followed as the blaze came under control around 8pm on Sunday, February 20.
Although the fire was declared officially out on the morning of the 23rd, Powell says some stumps and trees smoldered until doused by the heavy rains of early March.
According to figures supplied by Powell, this one event far surpassed all the wildfires the Department fought last year in Albemarle. According to those 2010 data, the Department worked six county fires totaling just 22 acres and costing just $2,972 to extinguish.
State law gives the Forestry Department the right to seek reimbursement, and Powell notes that the Department won reimbursement from three "responsible" parties last year. One party that won't seek reimbursement is the City of Charlottesville.
"We provide that service as part of the City-County Fire Services Agreement," says Charlottesville Fire Charles Werner in an email. "Our costs were nominal, as we only had two units operating there."
Albemarle counted costs of $35,792, according to County spokesperson Lee Catlin, who notes that the tally includes Charlottesville's contribution as well as estimates of the value of volunteers. Combined with the Forestry Department, that's a suppression cost of $45,732. Catlin said she'd look into the question of reimbursement.
One person who learned what can can go wrong on a windy day is Charlottesville physician Tanner Shilling. Last March, on a Scottsville-area farm, he and his 4-year-old son were monitoring a pile of burning fenceposts.
"The wind just started taking it out of control," says Shilling, who says he found relief from the Scottsville Volunteer Fire Department after promptly calling 911. "It could have been a real disaster," says Shilling, "if I'd kept on thinking that I could take control of it on my own."
Besides a single scorched acre, the damage was confined to Shilling's checking account. He paid $111, including fine and court costs, for conducting a pre-4pm blaze.
"It was a lesson for me," says Shilling. "I won't do that again."
Already, some now fence- and foliage-challenged Ragged Mountain-area residents– not to mention the family that lost their equipment-packed barn, now estimated as a $175,000 loss– have begun beseeching the subdivision's primary owner for compensation. That's because officials have charged the handyman, Alex Toomy (who lost the subdivision to foreclosure last year) with starting the blaze. However, the new owner, Ragged Mountain Partners LLC, denies responsibility.
A judge gets Toomy's criminal case on Monday, March 28.