Checks, balances and fighting fires
July 13, 2018
Inside what is normally the meeting room of Eagle County commissioners in El Jebel is a makeshift finance center that is tracking every penny related to the Lake Christine Fire.
The estimate of the fire’s cost was $4.9 million as of Wednesday, according to Jane Packer, the finance section chief for the Northern Rockies Incident Management Team.
When that interagency team took over the fire July 5 with federal officials and hundreds of firefighters, Packer’s finance center was up and running within hours.
“We have two hours to mobilize,” Packer said, adding the Northern Rockies team was pre-positioned in Loveland when it was called to the Lake Christine Fire. “We build it up pretty fast and then we demobilize pretty quickly.
“This process happens at every wildfire.”
It is here where firefighters and other crew members submit their hours, invoices for equipment costs and other bills related to the blaze.
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“Some days are more expensive than others,” Packer said.
The costs for the Lake Christine Fire went down dramatically Monday when firefighters got the blaze somewhat under control. More than 200 firefighters were demobilized and assigned to a different fire in the region.
“We are right-sizing the number of personnel, crews and equipment to the needs out there on the fire line,” Packer said.
As of Wednesday evening, the blaze was 49 percent contained and at 6,315 acres, or about 10 square miles. There are close to 400 personnel working on the fire, including six hand crews, 15 engines, three water tenders and five helicopters.
Aircraft accounts for 34 percent of the fire’s total cost. The next biggest chunk is fire crews at 27 percent, camp support and personnel and line personnel at 23 percent, and equipment at 16 percent.
Firefighters are paid by the agency they work for. That agency, in turn, will be reimbursed by the state of Colorado, along with other expenses like equipment and fire trucks.
The state is the hosting agency of the fire because it first broke out on state land. On July 3, two El Jebel residents allegedly shot tracer rounds at the Basalt shooting range, managed by Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The blaze then moved onto Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service land. Those agencies, along with the state, will share the costs of battling the blaze once the incident has been closed.
“When all the bills are paid, they will sit down and figure out who owes what,” Packer said. “For this fire, the cost share will be based on acres.”
The state has one month to pay before interest starts to accrue, she added.
Colorado leads the West in the number of fires currently burning. According to a July 9 incident management situation report from the National Interagency Situation Report, Colorado had nine fires with more than 189,000 acres burning.
The most expensive fire in the state currently is the 416 Fire in Durango at over $31 million.
The region with the most fires is Utah and Nevada, with 560,359 acres burning across 10 different blazes.
Nationally, more than 1 million acres are burning, requiring 14,000 fire personnel.
Packer and her team, which includes case unit leader Annette Hoyer, will spend the summer following the fires in the West. Packer lives in Montana and Hoyer in Albuquerque, New Mexico. But during fire season, they live in their tents.
“During the fire season, we are nomads,” Hoyer said, pointing to her temporary home out the window of the finance center. “My tent is right there.”
Hoyer said she spent 70 nights away from home last year. She arrived home Sept. 28.
“When I go home I miss my tent,” she said with a laugh.
That’s not the case with Packer.
“Not me, I eat off real plates and flush the toilet just to hear it,” she said.
Packer is retired but enjoys working on the incident management team seasonally.
“It’s kind of fun,” she said, adding the exception was when she arrived at the incident command center at 10 p.m. July 4.
That’s when the fire went rogue and the winds shifted, catching firefighters off guard, and flames were visible on Basalt Mountain.
“I have never been that close to a fire,” she said. “It was pretty scary.”
Hoyer works for the Forest Service in New Mexico the rest of the year.
“This is collateral duty,” she said. “We all support fire in different ways.”