USA — State officials hope FEMA grants will help offset its multimillion-dollar portion of the firefighting efforts. The U.S. Forest Service will pay the largest share; L.A. County will bear some cost.
Fighting the Station fire has cost at least $43.5 million, and federal fire officials say the 154,000-acre blaze in the Angeles National Forest is likely to be one of the most expensive fires in the country this year.
Although the federal government may foot 80% to 90% of the bill for fighting the fire, which broke out in national parkland, the state’s expected multimillion-dollar share will hit at a time when California is in the grip of a fiscal crisis. And the most dangerous part of the fire season is still to come.
The dozen or more state and local agencies that pitched in to keep flames out of foothill communities around the national forest already are looking for ways to recoup their portion of the bill. One effort could pass as much as three-quarters of the local costs to the federal government through Federal Emergency Management Agency grants.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Burbank) said last week that the state had spent between $8 million and $10 million, and predicted the final accounting might triple that figure. Exactly which state and local costs are eligible for FEMA reimbursement is not clear, but the grants are meant to pay only direct firefighting expenses.
“There will inevitably be areas of disagreement,” Schiff said. “The idea is to get the payments out in a timely manner.”
Meanwhile, buyers with federal credit cards are spreading out to local stores, with permission to purchase anything from lip balm to computer printers and Global Positioning System equipment.
Nearly half the fire’s overall cost comes from ground-level equipment, including the army of bulldozers hired and deployed to scrape fire lines into the steep hillsides of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Aviation, including two DC-10s and a retrofitted 747 jumbo jet used for the first time in California, accounts for 15% of the spending, according to the U.S. Forest Service.
Veteran fire officials say the tab for battling wildland fires is highest in heavily populated Southern California, where subdivisions and sprawling communities lie at the verge of national forests. The cost of stopping fires in the Southland so far this year already has exceeded the combined bill for every other wildland fire in the nation.
“When you have a fire on the Angeles National Forest, you don’t have a fire on the national forest — you have a fire that abuts communities and homes. And it’s not just one or two. It’s 10,000 homes,” said Sheri Elliott, the Forest Service’s chief of Incident Business Operations on the Station fire. “Wilderness in Southern California? It’s an urban forest.”
And there are other resources to protect: power lines, reservoirs, historic structures and communications towers. The five-day battle to save the facilities atop Mt. Wilson, which consumed a sizable chunk of the fire’s resources, is a case in point.
“Not many forests have a communications site like that,” Elliott said. “If it goes down, it has national security implications, public safety issues. . . . With the media and political attention on it, the agency is not going to walk away and say, ‘We’re sorry.’ We are going to put the appropriate resources on it.”
Elliott’s job is to watch over fire spending and question, gingerly, the sometimes costly tactical decisions of fire commanders. With fire suppression consuming more and more of the agency’s budget, incident commanders are on notice to rein in spending.
Many of the cost-sharing decisions have been negotiated ahead of time.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the L.A. County Fire Department depend heavily on these pre-existing agree- ments that spell out jurisdictional and financial responsibilities.
For example, when a fire threatens both federal and county land, the Forest Service policy is, “you order, you pay,” said Elliott. So, if the county wants to call in a Super Scooper, the county must absorb the cost.
The arrangement between the Forest Service and the state forestry department is more complicated. The two agencies track time and resources and bill each other proportionally. State crews will bill the Forest Service for time spent fighting fires on federal land, and vice versa.
“Ten months down the road, we come to the table and show everything we’ve spent,” Elliott said.
Insiders say the dickering can get heated.
“We try to stick to our agreements,” Elliott said.