By MARK FREEMAN
The two largest wildfires in Southern Oregon are on pace to be the costliest to Oregon landowners and taxpayers in at least 11 years and perhaps ever, authorities say.
Crews on the Big Windy and Douglas Complex fires as of Friday had chalked up more than $58.5 million of the nearly $71 million the Oregon Department of Forestry has spent fighting six major fires this season, according to the ODF.
That is clearly the most expensive big-fire year for the ODF, which regularly tallies anywhere from $3 million to $7 million in fighting a handful of larger conflagrations on state-protected lands, says Dan Postrel, ODF’s agency affairs program director.
“Looking at the raw numbers here, it’s definitely looking into historic territory,” Postrel says.
“It’s definitely safe to say it is an epic year. Most of these fires are still burning and we’re definitely seeing that in Southern Oregon.”
But how much of that bill falls on Oregonians will depend largely on how much ODF eventually will be reimbursed by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
In cases where large fires threaten structures, FEMA can reimburse the state for up to 75 percent of eligible costs during the length of time that structures were threatened by flames, according to ODF budget documents.
Eligible costs include field camps; equipment use, repair and replacement; tools, materials and supplies; and mobilization and demobilization activities.
Usually, that eligible time period lasts until a community-threatening wildfire is contained, Postrel says.
So far, the Douglas Complex and Brimstone fires as well as the earlier Pacifica fire near Williams qualify for FEMA reimbursements, Postrel says.
“It’s going to be months, perhaps even a year, before everything from the costs and reimbursements settle out,” Postrel says.
The Douglas Complex already has burned 46,059 acres and was listed Friday as 65 percent contained. Suppression costs heading into Friday were calculated at $42.25 million, with 2,093 people assigned to it, according to ODF.
The Brimstone fire, which burned about 2,400 acres near Sunny Valley, has cost more than $8 million to suppress so far, according to ODF.
The Pacifica fire burned about 500 acres near Williams last month and at one time threatened about 150 structures, according to ODF. The cost of fighting that fire was $844,087.
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 to date, but it has not qualified so far for FEMA reimbursements because of its remoteness.
The 12,130-acre Grouse Mountain fire near John Day has cost more than $1.34 million to fight so far, according to ODF. The 470-acre Box Springs fire that burned in about 470 acres near Prineville in mid-July cost $2.08 million to suppress, ODF statistics show.
After FEMA reimbursements following the 2002 wildfire season that included Southern Oregon’s almost 500,000-acre Biscuit fire, those fires ended up costing the state about $50 million, Postrel says.
Expenses can ring up quickly, with a 20-person private contract crew costing ODF $12,800 a day, ODF spokesman Brad Nichols says. That pencils out at $40 per hour per crew member working 16-hour days, he says.
The ODF has a base wildfire-fighting budget of about $40 million that covers initial attacks and mop-up on the lion’s share of the small fires, which this year already eclipse 700. The larger fires such as the Douglas Complex and Big Windy collectively move into a different funding system.
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 says. Anything above the $45 million level has to be handled through the Oregon Legislature, he says.
The current fires were lightning-ignited. Had they been human-caused, ODF could recoup expenses from those responsible for the blazes.
ODF 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.
Collectively, those lands are worth an estimated $60 billion, according to ODF.
Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470, or email at email@example.com.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.