County fire cost is $3M
By Kevin Huelsmann, Jackson Hole, Wyoming
October 15, 2012
The Horsethief Canyon Fire is out but could still burn a $3 million hole in Teton County’s budget.
County commissioners agreed last week to pay that much for the fire, but they hope the state can eventually come up with money to cover the tab. The U.S. Forest Service agreed to pay the rest of the cost. The total firefighting bill is estimated at about $9 million.
The fund that state officials have historically used to pay for such expenses has been drained by a busy fire season that saw blazes across the state.
“Our big hope is that the state of Wyoming, through the emergency state fire suppression account, will be able to help,” Deputy County Attorney Keith Gingery said.
The fund acts as an insurance policy for cities and counties throughout the state.
Governments pay into the fund — payment amounts are based on property values — and can submit claims. There is a deductible that cities and counties usually have to meet.
Gingery, who also is a state representative, said the fund has only $8 mil-lion in it. Wyoming cities and counties are now trying to recoup about $30 million in firefighting costs, he said.
Gov. Matt Mead has said he’s trying to find money in the state budget to cover the shortfall. He can reallocate up to 10 percent of a department’s budget, Gingery said.
Eventually, Mead will have to get the legislature to approve the money transfer.
The agreement signed by county officials Oct. 9 says they’ll pay 35 percent of the cost of fighting the Horsethief Canyon Fire, which broke out Sept. 8 and threatened homes in east Jackson for several days.
Negotiations about the bill first took into account where the fire was burning — on Forest Service land or county property. Also considered were what resources were being used, what was being protected and whose personnel were fighting the fire.
Negotiations began with a 50-50 split between the Forest Service and the county.
If the state comes up with the money, the county would pay a $12,000 fee, basically a deductible. If the state doesn’t find the money, the county will be on the hook for the $3 million.
Town officials would also help pay, through Jackson Hole Fire/EMS, which is a joint department. The two governments split the cost of the department based on their take from sales tax collections.
The county receives 55 percent of that money, which means it picks up an equal amount of the joint departments.
For the county, the state money would cover overtime, equipment costs and other bills. The county spent nearly $8,000 just on food and water for firefighting crews. Equipment costs totaled more than $80,000.
Overtime costs topped $26,000 for the police department, sheriff’s office and fire staff.
In addition, local volunteer firefighters are owed nearly $40,000 in wildland firefighting pay. Sixty volun-teers fought the fire. They put in more than 1,600 hours.