A recent study commissioned by the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission estimates that damage from the Rim fire to the natural environment and to property values could total about $250 million to $1.8 billion.
The preliminary assessment released last month places dollar amounts on losses in "environmental benefits," carbon storage and the asset value of property near where the fire burned.
Researchers from Earth Economics found losses in environmental benefits of $100 million to $736 million, in carbon storage of $102 million to $797 million, and in private property values of $49.7 million to $265 million.
David Batker, executive director of Earth Economics, said researchers couldn't or didn't estimate some issues, such as the fire's effect on the water supply or loss of health because of poorer air quality. He added that the results are based on satellite data taken when the fire was only 84% contained.
As a result, he said, the estimates were "very, very conservative."
"The actual damage will be larger," he said. "No doubt about it."
The 410-square-mile fire — the state's third-largest on record — was sparked Aug. 17 by a hunter's illegal campfire in the Stanislaus National Forest. It scorched swaths of forest, burning into the northwest part of Yosemite National Park before being fully contained in late October.
Experts at the time said the ecological effects of the blaze would probably last for decades, as massive trees were wiped out and habitats of rare species were severely altered. Officials have since debated the best way to handle the largest recovery effort the Sierra Nevada has seen.
President Obama signed a disaster declaration this month for the state of California, making federal funds available for recovery efforts related to the Rim fire. The Earth Economics report was included in Gov. Jerry Brown's request for the disaster declaration.
On Friday, Alison Anja Kastama, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission, said the inclusion of the report "supports the recognition of natural capital values."
"By assessing the impacts of the Rim fire, this report highlights the greater dollar value we can assign to our natural lands, which are a critical portion of our water system," she said.
Batker said federal agencies such as the Army Corps of Engineers and the U.S. Forest Service must now conduct cost-benefit analyses before embarking on projects. Spending a few million dollars on tree-thinning in the Stanislaus National Forest, he said, may appear more appetizing when the costs of fire damage to the environment are better known.
"There is a sea change right now for federal agencies," he said. "This is just the tip of the iceberg."