By Carl J. Haddon
As we find ourselves in the early stages of the 2013 wildland fire season, I earnestly ask the question to all rural fire departments and fire districts that border United State Forest Service (USDS) or Bureau of Land Management (BLM) lands: Is your department cost share aware? If you haven’t heard the term “cost share” yet, hang on tight because you are about to.
With the abhorrent condition of many of our national forests, coupled with the skyrocketing size and related costs of federal wildland firefighting, “the Feds” are looking for a way to pass on part of these astronomical costs to you and your department or fire district.
Cost share is exactly what it says. It is a relatively new concept whereby a share of the daily cost of fighting a fire that either originates in your district and travels onto federal lands or originates on federal lands and travels into your or district is passed on to you. The sales pitch for cost share usually sounds pretty good. You, the department. or district, agrees to pay 10 percent of the daily cost for said fire. Ten Percent? That sounds like a pretty good deal, right? Let’s look at it for a minute.
First, consider what your “disposable” budget funds consist of. Next we look at the high-dollar, but essential, elements of fighting a wildland fire: air attack. Don’t quote me because I don’t know what this year’s hourly rates are for aircraft. However not too long ago, a light helicopter cost roughly $400 to $600 per hour, per ship to fly. Retardant drops from fixed-wing aircraft can cost as much as $40,000 per payload (each time they drop retardant). In 2011, I was on a “small” wildfire in Idaho, where the average daily cost of the firefight was $1 million per day. But remember, the feds only want you to pay 10 percent of the cost. Hmmm, ten percent of $1 million per day equals $100,000 per day. Does your department have those types of contingency funds? Mine doesn’t.
Imagine that last year’s Mustang Complex Fire had 1,200 firefighters, two heavy helicopters, two medium helicopters, one light helicopter, a Type 1 incident management team, dozens of engines, and a complete fire camp. The fire lasted for longer than two months and cost tens of millions of dollars to fight. “The Feds” told me, “Don’t worry Chief, we’re not in the business of bankrupting small fire districts.”
My fire district had NEVER seen anything like the scope of the Mustang Complex fire before. The fire commissioners, our $38,000 per year budget, and I were completely unprepared to deal with the financial impact of a fire of that size, which originated (out of the district) in the wilderness and made its way into our district. Once the snow flew and the smoke settled later that autumn, the financial impact on our very small rural fire district was devastating.
There were many lessons learned about how we might be able to better prepare for next time. As firefighters and fire officers, we train to prepare ourselves and our firefighters for fireground situations that we face or may face. Unfortunately, fire commissioners and administrators in rural settings such as ours are typically well meaning, good hearted friends and neighbors who volunteer for these elected positions. Having been a former fire commissioner, I can tell you that there was never any training or seminars available for commissioners that could have prepared us for cost Share. I encourage you to familiarize yourself, your fire officers, and especially your commissioners to the world of cost share. Don’t hesitate to contact me directly if I can be of any help with this matter. I wouldn’t wish what we went through last year on anyone.
CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He serves as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Carl J. Haddon