There’s nothing cheap about fighting a wildfire.

One load of retardant can cost more than $10,000. A large helicopter making water drops will charge about $3,800 an hour. A hand crew costs about $8,000 a day. Showers for those hand crews run $3,000 a day.

“All of it is just really expensive,” said Bitterroot National Forest fire management officer Rick Floch. “It all adds up pretty fast.”

This summer, fire officials had a good reminder of how much the whole issue of access weighs into the cost of fighting wildfires on the Bitterroot National Forest.

The Chrandal Creek fire was discovered in the upper reaches of the West Fork in early July. Burning in heavy timber in locations not near any road network, firefighters were forced to focus on using a steady air attack and hiking crews long distances in to fight the fire.

“They used a lot of helicopters to cool things down,” Floch said.

By the time that fire was considered contained at a little more than 2,500 acres, the agency had spent about $8 million.

Later in the summer, the Sawtooth fire above Hamilton blew out the steep and nearly inaccessible high country. Firefighters were ready for it. They had built a contingency line along the lower edge of the mountainside and attacked the fire when it arrived.

By the time that fire was considered to be contained, it had burned more than 6,300 acres – more than twice the size of Chrandal – at a cost of $7.5 million.

“There is something to be said about waiting until a fire can get out to where you can get to it, in terms of cost,” Floch said.

Maybe one of the best examples this year of that was a small fire that started in the wilderness on the West Fork District. Due to its potential, the decision was made to put the fire out.

“It took a lot of crews and lot of helicopter work to do that,” Floch said.

To extinguish the fire of about 10 acres, the agency spent $105,000.

In the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness, fire has been allowed to do its thing for decades. That allows fire officials some latitude in deciding which fires need to be fought and which don’t.

At one point this summer, Floch said there were 16 fires creeping around in the wilderness between old fire scars.

“Even with a really good fire season, with all the drought, those fires only got to a couple thousand acres,” he said. “They creeped around all summer and didn’t do much.”

The only cost to the taxpayer was for monitoring.

This year was about average for the number of fires on the Bitterroot National Forest, but the amount of acreage that burned was up by quite a bit, Floch said.

There were 89 fire starts on the national forest this season. Those fires burned more than 41,000 acres, with the bulk of that being in the wilderness.

Most of the acreage that burned on the Bitterroot Forest this year came from fires that started in other places. About 90,000 acres were burned by fires that started mostly in Idaho.

“We also had some really big fires downwind from us this year,” he said. “We had a lot of smoke in the valley as a result of that.”

The fires that burned on the mountainsides above the valley floor will have an impact for years to come.

After a recent snowstorm, Floch said he looked up at scar left by the Kootenai fire of three years ago.

“I see that area reforesting even as we speak,” he said. “It’s created a nice buffer for the future. We have a lot of other nice places like that created by the Blodgett and Ward Mountain fires.

“It sets us up for the future so we’ll have better success when we do have fire come out of the high country,” Floch said.

Reach reporter Perry Backus at 363-3300 or pbackus@ravallirepublic.com.

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