Over $70 million spent on summer wildfires in S. Oregon

Over  $70 million spent on summer wildfires in S. Oregon
In this Aug. 7, 2013, photo provided by the Oregon Department of Forestry, firefighters conduct mop-up operations - finding and extinguishing hot spots - in the Douglas Complex of fires near Portland, Ore. A round of lightning in late July touched off major fires in southwestern Oregon. Fire camps there reported progress Thursday in establishing containment lines, without setbacks. (AP Photo/Oregon Department of Forestry)

The Oregon Department of Forestry has spent more than $70 million fighting major wildfires so far this summer, far more than it generally spends to handle conflagrations on state-protected lands.

 

The two largest wildfires in Southern Oregon — the Big Windy and Douglas Complex fires — are responsible for almost $60 million of that total.

The Douglas Complex, which qualifies for FEMA reimbursements, has burned 46,932 acres, or 73 square miles, and was listed Saturday as 72 percent contained. Suppression costs heading into Friday were calculated at $42.25 million, the Forestry Department said.

The Big Windy fire on federal Bureau of Land Management lands along the Wild Section of the Rogue River has cost more than $16.3 million.

"Looking at the raw numbers here, it's definitely looking into historic territory," Dan Postrel of the Forestry Department told the Mail Tribune newspaper.

How much of the bill ultimately falls on the state depends on reimbursements by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

In cases where flames threaten structures, FEMA can reimburse the state for up to 75 percent of eligible costs during the time structures are threatened. 

Eligible costs include field camps; equipment use, repair and replacement; tools, materials and supplies; and mobilization and demobilization activities. Usually, that eligible period lasts until a community-threatening wildfire is contained, Postrel said.

"It's going to be months, perhaps even a year, before everything from the costs and reimbursements settle out," Postrel says.

The Oregon Department of Forestry is responsible for wildfire fighting on about 15.3 million acres of county and state land as well as Western Oregon holdings of the federal Bureau of Land Management, which pays fees for that service.

The agency generally spends less than $10 million in a wildfire season. But the summer of 2002, which included the massive Biscuit Fire, ended up costing the state about $50 million.

Many of the 2013 state fires are eligible for FEMA reimbursements, however the Big Windy complex doesn't qualify because of its remote location.

Expenses can ring up quickly, with a 20-person private contract crew costing the state Department of Forestry $12,800 a day, agency spokesman Brad Nichols said. That works out to $40 per hour per crew member working 16-hour days.

The first $20 million toward the season's larger fires is split between state general fund money and landowners who pay timber taxes and land assessments into a special fund called the Oregon Forest Land Protection Fund.

After that, a Lloyd's of London insurance policy pays up to $25 million of these big-fire costs, Postrel said. Anything above the $45 million level has to be handled through the Oregon Legislature.

The major wildfires this season have been started by lightning. Had they been human-caused, the Forestry Department could seek expenses from those responsible.

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Information from: Mail Tribune

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.