HELENA – The state can do more to reduce the cost of fighting wildfires, but expenses are not running amok without government controls, a report from the legislative auditor’s office has concluded.
The Department of Natural Resources and Conservation should increase its assault on newborn blazes, pay less for standby firefighting equipment, and buy equipment for fire camps instead of paying high rental fees, according to a copy of the audit obtained Friday by the Associated Press.
The audit concluded: “Fire business practice controls are in place and the majority of these controls were adhered to during project (large) fires in 2003. However, improvements can be made both during and after fires.”
The 119-page report contains 27 recommendations for trimming firefighting expenses, improving communication and coordination with federal and local fire protection agencies, and ensuring the necessary resources are available.
The department this week agreed with the recommendations and set deadlines to comply, ranging from May 2005 to January 2007. The audit noted the agency is “working to address many of the issues and deficiencies identified from the 2003 fire season.”
The Legislative Audit Committee ordered the report a year ago, in the aftermath of one of the worst fire seasons Montana has seen. Flames charred 650,000 acres in 2003, and the state’s bill was $27 million, a record amount.
While wildland fire administration could be better, the report said, the problems in 2003 occurred during an unprecedented fire season when the “types, locations and number of fires stressed operational and control systems.”
“The least expensive fire is the one that never starts,” but the next cheapest fire is a small one not allowed to grow, the report said.
So the best money-saving tool is a strong initial attack to prevent small fires from becoming big blazes with big price tags, the audit said. In 2003 alone, the department was involved in fighting 682 wildfires. Nineteen of them were so large they accounted for 80 percent of total costs.
The department has done a good job of using pre-positioned fire crews, engines and aircraft to handle the initial attack on fires, the audit found. The agency is meeting its goal of holding 95 percent of fires to 10 acres or less.
But more should be spent to create a more aggressive program aimed at halting 98 percent of fires in their tracks, the report suggested.
The audit criticized the department for paying the same rate for equipment, whether on standby or on the fire lines. Those rates range from $2,632 a day to $770, depending on the type of machinery. The department should pay some fraction of those prices when equipment is not actually being used, it said.
Last year, the agency spent $2.6 million to have heavy equipment on standby for initial attacks. Paying a 50 percent rate could have saved the state $1.3 million, the report said.
The department has never tried to implement a system with different rates, but some contractors and local fire departments have said they are willing to accept a lower price when waiting to be called to a fire, the audit said.
Money also could be saved by requiring private owners of firefighting equipment to competitively bid for government contracts, and by purchasing rather than renting many of the supplies that are used to run a fire camp, the report said.
In some cases, the state is paying rental rates that exceed the value of the items, the auditors said. For example, a large tent rented for 15 days cost $2,700, and three photocopiers and a fax cost $11,968 to rent for 11 days.
The report said tighter controls are needed for keeping track of supplies obtained from national and regional “fire caches,” such as batteries, canteens, medical supplies, fire hoses, hand tools, tents, chain saws and pumps.
During the 2003 fire season, the department had to pay $690,604 to the federal government for items never returned to caches operated by the Bureau of Land Management in Billings and the Forest Service in Missoula.
The report concluded that helicopters are crucial to reaching and stopping fires while still small, but a lack of money and pilots has limited use of the choppers.
“Presently, DNRC is not able to maximize its helicopter resources due to a lack of personnel to support helitack operations,” it said, adding that the problem has been worsened with three of the department’s pilots deployed in the Middle East.