Tracking fire costs

Much of the media coverage concerning the Station fire has focused on the bottom line cost of fighting the blaze - at this point almost $96 million - so it was good to see the WSJ break out the numbers and provide some context. It turns out that a financial manager from the U.S. Forest Service oversees a team of 13 who track every penny spent. Just washing soot-stained clothes, for example, costs more than $4,000 a day. A rolling medical center runs $2,900 a day, and an outdoor bank of 12 sinks is $2,600 a day.

On the Station fire, finances are especially complicated. A big map in a finance trailer shows green straight lines outlining the boundary of the Angeles National Forest, which is the responsibility of the U.S. Forest Service. A jagged black line shows the fire, which has spilled outside the forest and into county, city and state territories. Who pays often depends on where the fire is burning. With dozens of crews from different agencies, untangling the fire's cost requires some intricate accounting. Moreover, local fire departments facing tight budgets are eager to collect for their services. For example, Los Angeles sent an ambulance to the fire camp and the U.S. Forest Service agreed to reimburse the city.

Also keep in mind that much of the effort rests on freelance firefighters and private contractors whose livelihood depends on putting out these blazes.

"Our time and pay is pretty much the most important thing for my crew," said [Nathan Stephens, captain of the Blue Ridge hotshot crew based in Happy Jack, Ariz.]. Federal firefighter salaries range from around $12 an hour to more than $22. Many firefighters work just part of the year. "We don't really make a whole lot of money so we look forward to the overtime through the summer," he said.

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
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