Friday, August 30, 2013

Feds to pay most of the tab for fire suppression

Beaver Creek Fire costs expected to exceed $25 million

Express Staff Writer

Firefighters from throughout the nation came to help battle the Beaver Creek Fire as it raged through Blaine County. However, their assistance comes at a cost. Photo by Roland Lane

    The lion’s share of the Beaver Creek Fire will be paid by the federal government, but Blaine County and local municipalities and fire districts will have to share some of the costs.
    On Wednesday, the Beaver Creek Fire Incident Command Center estimated suppression costs to date at $24.1 million.
    “The cost is still being accumulated,” said Bill Swartley, Incident Command Center public information officer. “It’s probably going to be rising up to $25 million by the time the incident is concluded.”
    However, Swartley pointed out that the estimate only includes actual wildfire suppression and does not include costs to what he called “cooperators,” which includes local police, fire departments and other emergency agencies involved in protection of the public.
    Costs to local governments aren’t yet known, except that Hailey City Administrator Heather Dawson has already calculated police, fire and other staff time, including overtime, at more than $26,000.
    Whatever the local costs, the federal government will pick up part of that tab to through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Fire Management Assistance Grant Program. FEMA declared on Aug. 15 that local and state costs associated with the fire are eligible for the grants, which are typically referred to as FMAG.
    With an FMAG, FEMA will pay 75 percent of eligible costs. Blaine County Disaster Services Coordinator Chuck Turner said he expects the state of Idaho to pay 15 percent of the remaining 25 percent, leaving local agencies to pay only 10 percent.

Federal costs

    Swartley said the estimated $25 million for Beaver Creek Fire suppression will be shared by the “host agencies,” which are the U.S. Forest Service and the BLM. He said the split between the agencies hadn’t yet been determined.
    Swartley said the money pays for the Hotshot crews, aviation, fuel and materials, camp costs and meals.
    At its peak, more than 1,800 people were fighting the fire with about a dozen helicopters and more than a half dozen planes.

Local costs

   Local police departments were mainly involved in notifying people and enforcing and protecting evacuation zones, and fire departments were involved in structure protection. The Beaver Creek fire burned so rapidly and threatened so many populated areas that outside resources, including police and fire departments, had to be brought in.
    Blaine County Commission Chair Larry Schoen said none of those outside resources are free.
    “It’s not really donated,” he said. “It’s hard to say at this point what those costs are going to be until the bills start coming in.”
    Schoen said other costs to the county will be overtime pay, some camp costs and food costs at the evacuation shelter at the Community Campus.
    Under the FMAG program, eligible costs include emergency work, such as evacuations and sheltering and police barricades and traffic control, operation of an emergency management center, personal comfort and safety items for firefighters, field camps and meals, mobilization and demobilization costs, equipment and supplies, and damage, such as to roads, that can be caused by firefighting activities.
    The program guide states that services provided by outside agencies and jurisdictions are eligible expenses.
    In Idaho, the FMAG program is managed through the state Bureau of Homeland Security. Grant requests are sent and processed there and then from the bureau to FEMA.
    “The state looks at every request, and it’s a long, drawn-out process,” Turner said. “I’ve never worked with it before, but it’s supposed to be a real help to the local agencies. It’s a measure to help remove the burden of costs to local agencies. Every little bit helps in a situation like this and FMAG will certainly help us.
    “It’s a positive program.”
Terry Smith:

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