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When fire breaks out, who pays?

JERRY McBRIDE/Durango Herald file photo

A myriad of government agencies cover firefighting costs such as these Type 3 fire engines that came from California last year to fight the Weber Fire.

By Dale Rodebaugh Herald staff writer

Smokey Bear was right on one count: Only you can prevent wildfires. What he didn’t say was: You pay for the cost of fire suppression.

And how.

Nationwide, the federal government spends more than $1 billion annually on fire suppression alone. States and counties have huge expenses as well. The stakes are high, but who pays for what?

When crises strike, firefighters are dedicated to their task. But myriad agencies, multiple responsibilities and sometimes-muddy bookkeeping make it difficult to figure out who owes what once it’s over.

If more than one agency is involved, negotiations on cost-sharing begin almost as soon as smoke appears on the horizon.

La Plata County only this year is getting a grip on detailed record keeping of firefighting expenses.

“Up to this year, we just paid the bills,” said Butch Knowlton, the county’s director of emergency preparedness. “We never tied expenses to a specific fire.”

The Stateline Fire, which burned last year from June 23 to July 10 on La Plata County and Southern Ute Indian Tribe land, covered 350 acres. The county’s cost was a good chunk of the $134,437 total the county spent on firefighting in 2012, Knowlton said.

Costs are rising for everyone.

The annual cost to federal government agencies for fire suppression alone, which was a mere $203 million nationally in 1986, has risen to more than $1 billion annually for 12 of the last 13 years.

The most spent in a single year was $1.92 billion in 2006. The cost in 2012 was close: $1.9 billion and some loose change. In 2002, the year of the 72,692-acre Missionary Ridge Fire in La Plata County and the 138,000-acre Hayman Fire southwest of Denver, federal suppression cost almost $1.7 billion.

Air costs tally quickly

Fighting fire from the air doesn’t come cheaply. A single-seat air tanker costs $3,100 a hour, including plane, pilot and fuel; a bomber-type BAe-146 under contract from a private company goes for $9,996 an hour; a C-130 outfitted with slurry tanks costs $7,000 an hour.

What drops the jaw is that the foregoing costs didn’t include firefighter training, having crews on standby and hazardous fuel-reduction projects through prescribed burns or mechanical means.

The amount states and counties paid for firefighting aren’t part of the totals, either.

After the steep costs last year, La Plata County realized it needed a more-comprehensive system to track its expenses.

“We recognized we spend a lot on firefighting, and we were conscious of the need to identify expenses,” Knowlton said. “As of 2013, we’ll be able to say at the end of the year how much we spent and tie every dollar to a fire,” he said.

Times have changed, said Deputy County Manager Joanne Spina.

“We used to absorb the cost of firefighting throughout the budget,” Spina said. “But firefighting in 2012 was a sizeable expense, so we needed a more robust system to keep track of expenditures.”

Interagency agreement

On another front, drought conditions that make wildland fires more likely and increase the cost of fighting them brought the first comprehensive agreement among La Plata County and local fire agencies this year. It covers how fires are fought, who’s in charge, cost-sharing and postfire paperwork.

The Local Government Cooperative Wildland Fire Management Agreement, signed April 30, replaces a less-detailed pact stitched together and patched many times through the years, Knowlton said.

“We were required by law to have an agreement,” Knowlton said. “But this time, we really overhauled it.”

A major consideration in negotiating the wildland-fire agreement was how much each jurisdiction can pay before requiring higher-level help. The county, stung by its share of fighting the Stateline Fire last year, now will limit its annual firefighting budget to $500,000 to cover all possible contingencies and increased costs.

In 2011, the county spent $54,145 on fire suppression, Knowlton said, but all billing and/or collection hasn’t been finalized.

In Colorado, two funds available through the state can be tapped for fighting fires:

Counties that contribute, through a formula, to the $1 million Emergency Fire Fund can draw on it – and can draw more than they contribute – if the state takes over their responsibility for a fire, said Terrie Craven, fiscal manager at the state Division of Fire Prevention and Control. La Plata County contributed $38,458 for the fiscal year May 1, 2012, to April 30, 2013. It will pay $42,707 for the year ending April 30, 2014.

The Wildfire Emergency Response Fund – currently with a $500,000 limit – is a state-funded pot made available for initial response to a fire. Certain expenses are eligible for reimbursement, others are not.

The cost to the state for firefighting increased from $1.5 million in 2009 to $18.6 million in 2010-11 and $45.3 million in 2012.

Sorting out 2012

Craven said cost-sharing figures for 2012 still are being sorted out. The number of fires, the increasing expense and the transfer of the Division of Fire Prevention and Control from Colorado State University to the state Department of Public Safety have contributed to the delay, Craven said.

If a fire starts on federal land, the appropriate agency (Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) responds, said Jennifer Jones, a Forest Service media specialist at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, where nine federal agencies have offices.

“Theoretically, the key to firefighting is whose land it is, where the fire starts. But we turn to the closest forces through mutual-aid agreements – federal government, states and local dispatch centers,” Jones said.

“Incidents are run from the ground up,” Jones said. “Incident commanders are the closest to the fire, so they know what strategy and tactics are required. They are familiar with the lay of the terrain, fuels, weather, fire behavior and temperature.

Federal agencies generally don’t bill one another, Jones said.

“All costs come out of the same pot,” she said.

The Forest Service budget for fiscal 2013, which runs Oct. 1, 2012, to Sept. 30, 2013, is slightly more than $2 billion. The total consists of $510 million for suppression, $949 million for preparedness, $299 million in reserve and $301 million for hazardous-fuel reduction.

“At the end of the day, it’s all paid for in taxes,” Jones said.


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