July 17, 2008 in City

A $3 million firefight

Local departments, DNR will cover 30 percent of tab
By The Spokesman-Review
 
Photos by RAJAH BOSE photo

Firefighter Bob Chandler, part of a La Grande, Ore., firefighting crew, settles in Tuesday night at Horizon Middle School.
(Full-size photo)(All photos)

The Valley View wildfire neared 100 percent containment Wednesday as state authorities prepared to hand command of the 1,000-acre blaze over to local officials by this morning.

Hundreds of fire crews will be sent home, leaving 170 fire personnel and Spokane County authorities in charge. The bill for fighting the blaze is nearly $3 million, officials said Wednesday. Damage costs were unclear.

The blaze sparked last Thursday by an unattended recreational fire destroyed 11 homes, forced hundreds of Spokane Valley residents to evacuate and prompted setup of two emergency shelters. Dennis Heryford, a DNR fire investigator, said the fire was apparently started by teenagers to roast marshmallows three days earlier.

The fire was started on a vacant lot next to the home of Tracy Berg, 1915 S. Eastern Lane, who “has been burning in that pit since 1995,” Heryford said.

On July 7, three days before the wildfire, a 16-year-old friend of Berg’s son went to her home and asked if he and a few others could use the pit to roast marshmallows, and she apparently allowed it, Heryford said. When the teens left, they reportedly poured water on the fire.

At its peak, the wildfire engaged 511 fire personnel, loads of equipment and firefighting aircraft from Washington and North Idaho. During a busy fire season, local firefighters and equipment already were busy.

“Normally it’s closest forces first,” said Dale Warriner, a state Department of Natural Resources spokesman. “But in this case, we had three fires going at once.”

The Badger Mountain fire, which threatened 50 structures in Stevens County, and the Cayuse fire in Okanogan County were burning last Thursday when state resources were made available for the Spokane Valley wildfire.

So when the call went out for help, crews from as far as Western Washington – King County, Poulsbo and Gig Harbor among them – were among those who responded.

Wages constitute about 50 percent of a fire’s cost. Those wages go to workers including firefighters, supervisors, spokespeople and those digging fire lines, Warriner said. Equipment costs, such as bulldozers and water tenders, aircraft and other supplies, make up the other half.

Nearly 40 outside fire agencies responded to help, said Bill Clifford, Spokane Valley Fire Department spokesman.

Fire crews were given a timeframe for how long they needed to be here, he said. They can stay for as long as 14 days; if containing the fire takes longer than that, crews are sent home and another mobilization request is made.

Fire crew members are paid overtime for working more than eight hours a day and typically work 14 to 16 hours, officials said. Those who travel a long distance are paid for their travel time.

Today, many will be paid for their drive home.

The question becomes: Who pays for the costs of fighting a wildfire caused by an unattended recreational fire – taxpayers or those who lit the match?

Costs could be recovered through criminal or civil liability, officials say. But for now, 70 percent will be paid for by the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The remaining 30 percent will be picked up by the DNR, the Spokane Valley Fire Department and Spokane County Fire District No. 8.

Heryford said he planned to interview the friend of Berg’s son in the next few days as he continues the investigation.

Charges have not been filed in the case. The DNR investigator said he will finish his work and leave the charging decision up to the Spokane County prosecutor’s office. Spokane Valley fire investigators will not criminally charge Berg, officials said.

“The tragic part is that everyone thought they put the fire out,” Heryford said. “From a prevention standpoint, that’s the biggest message to get out. You can’t just pour water on it. You have to dig it out and mill it around.”

Contact Jody Lawrence-Turner at (509) 459-5593 or jodyl@spokesman.com.

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