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USA has most destructive, expensive wildfire season in 50 years

Updated 10/6/2006 4:53 PM ET

By Tom Kenworthy, USA TODAY

DENVER — The federal government spent $1.5 billion fighting wildfires in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, a tab that reflects the most destructive fire year in nearly half a century.

The cost marks the fourth time in the past seven years that firefighting costs exceeded $1.3 billion, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. In 2002, federal agencies spent nearly $1.7 billion.

Since January, fires have burned more than 9.1 million acres. That is the worst destruction since the Boise center began keeping accurate records in 1960 and far exceeds the yearly average of 5.2 million acres over the past decade.

Despite the cost and scale of this year's firefighting efforts, "there is another statistic that we are pretty pleased about," said Mark Rey, an undersecretary of Agriculture who oversees the U.S. Forest Service.

Rey said 675 primary residences have been destroyed in fires so far this year, compared with 3,000 houses in 2003 and 2,000 in 2002, both considered bad fire years.

Rey attributes the relatively low number of houses lost to ambitious federal efforts to remove brush and other debris that fuels fire from around communities that border forests, as well as better planning by local fire departments to protect residential areas.

The previous record for acres burned was almost 8.7 million acres in 2005, when the government spent more than $875 million. Firefighting costs vary widely depending on whether communities are threatened and whether fires in remote areas are allowed to burn out.

States that have lost the largest acreage to fires this year include Texas (1.5 million acres), Idaho (845,000 acres), Montana (830,000 acres), New Mexico (610,000 acres), Oregon (497,000 acres) and California (402,000 acres).

Five large fires were actively burning Wednesday: two in California and one each in Montana, Oregon and Washington. Those fires cover about 635,000 acres.

(Original Len: 2428 Condensed Len: 2585)

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