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Wildfire by the numbers; fire tops $13 million in costs

It will take months for the final costs of the Government Flats Fire Complex to be worked out, but a rough early tally shows the cost at about $13.8 million, a state official said.

It’s Dana Tenold’s job at the Oregon Department of Forestry to figure out the costs of fighting the lightning-caused fire that started Aug. 16, 10 miles south of The Dalles. Unraveling the costs is a complicated process, and some can take quite awhile to pin down.

“I’ll be lucky if I get the cost of the retardant on this incident by June, if not next fall,” Tenold said.

Costs for services of the Oregon National Guard are also yet to be plugged in, she said. The final cost will certainly change, and she wouldn’t be surprised to see another half million dollars in costs tacked on to the current tally.

Mid-Columbia Fire & Rescue is also still working out its total costs for the fire, and doesn’t yet have a total figure, Fire Chief Bob Palmer said.

Tenold is the finance section chief for the fire, and she worked overtime during the blaze to oversee a staff that was tasked with tracking everything from time cards to ordering big equipment.

In rough numbers, fire costs so far are: $4.5 million for contract fire crews; $4.1 million for aircraft; $1.3 million for support costs like catering, facilities, support vehicles, showers, supplies and the like; $1.3 million for dozers, tenders and other equipment; and $2.6 million for personnel costs, which include government workers on the fire from state seasonal fire crews to support staff like Tenold to personnel from other agencies and even people hired for just a day to make signs.

Tenold will spend months plugging in bills as they come in, and auditing them for accuracy and completeness. For example, some motel room expenses came in $3 over the allowed federal per diem of $77 per day (plus taxes). If she doesn’t submit the correct paperwork to authorize that extra $3 to be paid, that cost will be taken out of the Department of Forestry’s own budget.

Tracking of expenses begins at the ordering desk, where everything from equipment to supplies is ordered during the fire. Others are tasked with keeping track of shift tickets, which record the dates and time of shifts worked by each firefighter. Those shift tickets are later checked against actual bills paid to ensure accuracy.

The fire burned on both state and federal land, which meant the billing for the fire is based on a cost-share program, Tenold said.

The cost share is calculated using the location of the perimeter of the fire, she said. The Oregon Department of Forestry had 81 percent of the perimeter and the U.S. Forest Service had 19 percent, she said.

The location of each bucket drop from an aircraft was noted, so the appropriate agency could be billed for it, she said. “Whenever a helicopter was flying it was based on a percentage of how many were dropped on state land and how many were dropped on federal land.”

“Every day the percentage is different,” she said.

In all, three air tankers and nine helicopters worked on the fire.

While aircraft are very expensive, contract crews will usually cost more, because they are kept on a fire for so much longer than aircraft, Tenold said.

The contract fire crews — there were 38 of the 20-man crews — cost between $10,000 and $12,000 per day, she said. Each employee costs $37 to $47 an hour, and that cost includes their pay, their equipment costs and their company’s overhead costs.

The $2.6 million personnel costs included a number of local “runners,” temporarily hired to do everything from shuttling equipment to fire crews to picking up garbage and helping with recycling, she said.

“It’s a huge logistical process setting up a fire camp. The fire camp alone, it takes a lot of people to support an incident with that many people,” she said.

At its height, over 1,000 firefighters were working on the blaze, which burned 11,434 acres.

The cost of the equipment they used is wrapped up under a miscellaneous category. All the hose, all the nozzles get counted and sorted and shipped back to the fire cache centers in Boise or Redmond or Salem.

The biggest area of surprise bills comes from “the supply side of things, the meals, the ice, creature comfort kinds of things, she said. Those will surprise you and come in later,” she said.

She might, for example, get a $10 bill for 20 pounds of ice.

“Who ordered that?” she’ll wonder.

Each piece of equipment is accounted for.

“We have a contractor who checked out headlamps and didn’t return two of them and that’s like $60 and I need to invoice him for that,” she said.

While fires are expensive to fight, one plus is that a lot of the money goes into local businesses, from motels to gas stations, she said.

Even North Wasco County School District 21 got paid some $12,600 for the use of the Wahtonka Campus, and that doesn’t include the cost of district employees who served as custodial staff during the fire.

But the campus wasn’t quite ready for prime time, and gravel had to be put down in the parking lot south of the track to level it out for the catering trailers that parked there.

“The fire camp bought that, so that’s a direct cost to the local operating budget,” she said.

While the bulk of the fire camp was at Wahtonka Campus, a lot of fire crew also camped at the former aluminum plant, Tenold said.

The fire also qualified for assistance from the Federal Emergency Management (FEMA) for a time. Operational costs incurred by state, federal and local governments between noon on Aug. 17 and 7 p.m. on Aug. 26 can eligible for reimbursement of up to 75 percent from FEMA.

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