Besides charring thousands of acres of brush, last summer's two major wildfires left a pile of smoldering bills that are now burning a hole in Utah County's pocket.
"The public should be aware who is paying the bills to fight these fires," Commissioner Richard Johnson said. "It's their tax dollars that are going toward them."The county pays about $320,000 annually in contracts to cities for fire protection to the unincorporated areas. About $250,000 of the expense is covered by taxes generated from assessments to special service districts. Because not all county land is privately owned, however, the remaining balance is paid from the general fund.
The contracts do not cover additional equipment and manpower, or overtime hours, needed to fight fires on state and federal land. These additional costs are billed to the county. Fortunately for the county, the entities that have jurisdiction over the land where the fires occur help pay the additional bills. Also, the state pays half of the county's share.
At the Pole Canyon Fire, which burned about 3,250 acres near Cedar Fort in September, the Forest Service provided about $48,000 in helicopters, crews and supplies. The state provided about $47,000 in fire crews and equipment, Utah County about $5,000, Salt Lake County about $2,500 and the Bureau of Land Management about $2,800. Utah County is responsible for 69 percent of the costs, the Bureau of Land Management 29.5 percent and the state 1.5 percent.
At the Dry Creek Fire that burned about 400 acres above Alpine in June, the Forest Service provided about $24,000 in assistance. Wasatch County provided about $6,600 in equipment and personnel, Salt Lake County about $1,000 and the state about $3,000. The county will pay 80 percent of the expense while Alpine pays the rest.
Utah County's total share for the summer wildfires is about $97,000. This does not include about $21,000 in overtime hours billed to the county by local fire departments. Subtracting the state's share and the $11,000 budgeted for fighting wildfires, the county must come up with about $64,000. Commissioners said the balance likely will be paid from the liability insurance fund.
The county may be able to recoup some of the costs from the individuals responsible for setting the Pole Canyon Fire. Two Salt Lake County men, who left a campfire unattended, were arrested and charged with causing the blaze. The county attorney's office may try to collect the county's share of the firefighting costs from the men's insurance policies.
If not for the monitoring of firefighting efforts by Fire Marshal Tom Wroe, however, the county's bill may be even higher. Wroe is responsible for determining how much equipment and manpower is necessary to fight a blaze. Wroe said most local fire departments use money earned from fighting wildfires to subsidize their budgets and, consequently, they don't like it when their assistance is turned away.
"I'm not the most popular guy among local fire department because I'm the one that tells them to take their equipment home, and I'm also the one that turns them away later when they want to get paid," Wroe said.
Commissioners are concerned that fire contracts are increasing by about 4 percent each year while the unincorporated area of the county is shrinking. When cities annex portions of the county, the special service districts collect less money. Commissioners said the cities are actually charging more money each year to provide protection to less area.
"It's something that concerns us and it's something we plan on addressing in the near future," Johnson said.
Financial residue from fire season
Pole Canyon fire costs $105,321
Dry Creek (Alpine) fire costs 38,545
Other county fire costs 2,236
Total costs: 146,102
Utah County $54,347
Bureau of Land Management 31,069
State of Utah 52,977
Alpine City 7,709