SANTA YNEZ, CALIF. — For a tense couple of weeks, the 31,000-acre Zaca fire threatened to scorch more than 1,000 square miles of wilderness and reach the outskirts of communities as far-flung as Santa Barbara and Ojai.
Now, the smoke is clearing but the long, dark shadow of the auditor looms over a massive operation that has cost an average of more than $1 million a day for nearly a month.
Eye-popping wildfire expenditures aren't all that unusual -- this month's inferno at Lake Tahoe ran up daily bills of $1.8 million -- but increasingly they have drawn stern warnings from Congress and repeated promises from fire officials to hold the line on spending.
Such cost consciousness could bring changes welcomed by environmentalists -- such as firefighters simply keeping an eye on certain remote wilderness fires rather than stomping them out in what foresters a century ago likened to the moral equivalent of war. As bone-dry California plunges into another severe wildfire season, fire officials say their new frugality could also alter other long-used firefighting strategies and front-line practices.
With the Zaca fire just 51% contained early last week, hundreds of firefighters from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies already had been released to go home or battle fires elsewhere. At base camp eight miles from the bucolic Santa Ynez Valley, giant bulldozers were being loaded onto flatbed trucks, one of two mobile showers was hauled away and workers were dismantling a huge tent where managers had been meeting to discuss daily strategy.
The shifts reflected greater attention to the bottom line, officials said.
"In the past, some incident commanders have been overly cautious," keeping manpower and equipment on hand past the time they were really necessary, said Mike Ferris, a U.S. Forest Service spokesman at base camp. "Now, we're challenging that way of thinking."
Whether such measures will satisfy the Forest Service's critics is an open question.
In a scathing report last month, the congressional General Accountability Office contended that the Forest Service and allied agencies "have neither clearly defined their cost-containment goals and objectives nor developed a strategy for achieving them."
The GAO acknowledged some Forest Service attempts to trim costs but said they were inadequate, allowing wildfire expenses to nearly triple in a decade. Forest Service officials, who have heard similar complaints before, said they took the criticism to heart.
"After the billion-and-a-half dollars that we spent last year, we did a lot of soul-searching about things we can do better," said Tom Harbour, the agency's director of fire and aviation management, in a telephone interview from a wildfire in Idaho. One result: Top-level Forest Service management teams are rushed in to eyeball expenses and strategy on fires, such as Zaca, where costs surpass $10 million.
Last year set a wildfire record, with flames blackening more than 13,500 square miles -- the equivalent of Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island combined. The Day fire north of Los Angeles swept through more than 250 square miles, at a cost topping $70 million.
Harbour said officials have renewed their vow to let fires in some areas long untouched by flame burn for the well-being of the forest. And he suggested that firefighters would steer clear of heroic measures to save remote, wood-shingled forest hideaways surrounded by cascades of flammable shrubbery.
"We may not even commit firefighters to try to protect a home like that," he said.
The Zaca fire started July 4, when a ranch worker was grinding a length of irrigation pipe and a stray spark ignited some grasses. Firefighters managed to steer the fast-moving blaze away from Los Olivos and other communities but lost a race to keep it out of the chaparral-choked San Rafael Wilderness Area, which is inaccessible to trucks, bulldozers and other heavy equipment.
The only alternative was a costly, full-on attack using air tankers and helicopters, said Ferris of the Forest Service. Fire crews were dropped onto ridges and picked up every two or three days, reducing the cost of shuttling them back to camp each night.
Even so, aircraft rental adds up to real money in no time. Firefighting helicopters go for about $8,000 an hour; and at one time, 14 choppers and six air tankers were active at Zaca. Air attack, in fact, typically accounts for about one-third of all wildfire expenses. But the Forest Service believes it's cheaper to rent than to buy and maintain a year-round fleet, Ferris said.
Other expenses also mount quickly. Even seasonal firefighters -- sometimes college students on summer break -- can pull down $23 an hour including overtime. Full-time professionals -- about 50 Santa Barbara County firefighters were at Zaca -- make their regular pay and, often, overtime.