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Wildfires can cost millions. So who pays when flames cross boundaries?

Splitting bills can be tricky, but a system is in place to ease the process
Rich Gustafson, fire management officer with the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Ignacio, talks Thursday about the Bear Dance Fire that scorched about 90 acres in June east of Ignacio. When wildfires cross jurisdictional boundaries, sorting out who pays for suppression efforts can be complicated, but there is a system. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Rapid fire responses can rack up large costs fast, and when adjacent state and federal lands are hit with the same fire, figuring out who pays for what can get complicated.

That’s why there’s a robust system in place to guide cost sharing.

Normally, costs incurred during a wildfire response are paid for by the local, state or federal agency with jurisdiction over the burned area. But when multiple agencies get involved, sometimes it’s more feasible to split the check, said Hal Doughty, fire chief for Durango Fire Protection District.

A large fire requiring multiple responding agencies could cost upward of $50 million for all of the resources used, he said. If La Plata County or the DFPD got stuck with a bill that large, they could go bankrupt. But the state of Colorado and federal agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service put aside millions and billions of dollars, respectively, for fire fighting every year.

“If La Plata County or if an individual fire district got hooked for a million dollars worth of air costs, that could put us under,” Doughty said. “We (can’t) get ourselves in a situation where we couldn’t afford the men and women that answer calls every day.”

He said communication and maintaining strong relationships with regional, state and federal partners are key when it comes to negotiating shared costs. And fire agencies understand that spending money early during a response, and accepting that financial burden, can prevent higher costs down the road.

Doughty said the Lightner Creek Fire in summer 2017 is a good example. Fire crews never determined what started the fire at 1255 Lighter Creek Road (County Road 207) that burned 412 acres and forced the evacuation of more than 170 homes, but costs to federal and state firefighters added up to more than $2 million, according to the DFPD.

A Type 1 firefighting helicopter loads up with water from Turtle Lake while fighting the Perins Peak Fire northwest of Durango in May. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

Fire agencies had to hit the fire fast and hit it hard to prevent it from spreading.

“So we ordered a ton of resources on that fire in order to get that thing boxed in and shut down very quickly,” he said. “It’s not uncommon (with) a fire like that for there to be hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of costs each day that you’re operating.”

Despite evacuations, the fast response by federal, state and local fire agencies made for a successfully managed fire. The only structure lost to the blaze was the home where it originated.

He said people in the firefighting business recognize that spending $100,000 on Day 1 to combat a fire while it is small can avoid spending $50 million on a much larger fire.

Negotiating costs

Richard Gustafson, fire management officer for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe and incident commander for most large fires in La Plata County, also said relationships are invaluable.

“We realize that fire doesn’t care about boundaries,” he said. “So if it’s on one side of the fence or another, we all take a proactive approach and go fight the fire where it’s at and try to keep it as small as we can with a full response by all of our partners through what we call mutual aid.”

An air tanker drops slurry on the Perins Peak Fire in May west of Durango. (Courtesy of Shaun Stanley, file)

The first 24 hours or so of battling a fire is a phase fire crews call “mutual aid,” Gustafson said. After that phase passes, administrations from each participating jurisdiction will meet to determine responsibility for the blaze and the costs. If there is reason for one jurisdiction to not take sole responsibility for costs, all of the parties can enter into negotiations for divvying up the bill.

It is up to the jurisdiction that assumes responsibility for the fire to initiate cost-share negotiations. All the parties involved will send a line officer or administrator to help negotiate who is responsible for what costs, he said. Nine times out of 10, cost-share agreements are based on the number of acres burned in all jurisdictions involved.

“So if it’s 100 acres and 50 burns on private land and 50 burns on federal land then the state of Colorado and the feds will come up with an agreement (that’s) a 50/50 spread on that by acres,” Gustafson said.

But sometimes, more resources are needed on a certain part of a fire that falls within a single jurisdiction, even though the blaze is also burning in another jurisdiction. In such a situation, costs are negotiated more flexibly, he said. Whatever deal parties can reach is what sticks.

Brian Faith, wildland coordinator with Grand Lake Fire and Rescue, pumps water through 6,000 feet of hose to the Perins Peak Fire on May 25 west of Durango. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

All cost-share negotiations are guided by a cooperative agreement between the state, feds and local jurisdictions. The cooperative agreement outlines how negotiations are to be performed, and is revisited every winter so all parties are on the same page come next fire season, he said.

Doughty said the state cooperative agreement guided local, state and federal agencies through cost-share meetings for the Perins Peak Fire, which started May 24 and burned about 100 acres west of Durango.

Fire agencies originally thought the blaze started on Bureau of Land Management land. An air traffic controller observing the fire from a plane placed the fire’s origin at the center of the blaze. But later, the point of origin was determined to be in a different jurisdiction not overseen by the BLM, Doughty said.

The fire had actually started on state wildlife land – and under the current state cooperative agreement, state wildlife land falls under the jurisdiction of the local sheriff’s office.

Wildland firefighters hike along County Road 208 in the Perins Peak Wilderness Area, west of Durango, to battle a fire in Lightner Creek in 2012. (Durango Herald file)

“That changed who would have been the agency responsible from BLM to the sheriff,” Doughty said.

The fire’s true point of origin wasn’t learned for at least three days after crews started battling the Perins Peak Fire. The fire chief said by that point, hundreds of thousands of dollars had already been spent on air resources.

“Because it was so close to BLM (land) and it was threatening, they held a meeting and talked about it and worked all that stuff out,” he said.

Gustafson said cost-share negotiations are less complicated than they were about a decade ago. Back then, a lot of minutiae in the state cooperative agreement hadn’t been worked out, which led to situations where it wasn’t always clear who was responsible for what.

“Now, that hierarchy has slowly become more identified and delineated, and the feds of course have always stayed the same,” he said. “But now that process between the non-federal partners is more established. And so, the agreements and the cost-shares have become easier as time’s gone by.”

Gustafson said the State Line Fire in 2012 near Denver is the watershed incident that exposed flaws in the state cooperative agreement. But over time, the agreement has become more fleshed out.

Doughty said it makes for a complex but robust system.


An air tanker makes a drop on the Ute Pass Fire northeast of Durango in May. (Courtesy of Jamie Knight, file)
A single-seat air tanker drops slurry on the Bear Dance Fire in June as it burns east of the Sky Ute Casino near Ignacio. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
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