Fire Finances: southern Oregonians may be paying for human-caused fires for years

Flames can be seen from the Hellgate Canyon area of the Taylor Creek Fire. The Taylor Creek Fire ignited in July after a lightning storm started a number of fires across southern Oregon. (Courtesy: David Huss)

In the Southwest District, Oregon Department of Forestry broke a record by spending $70 million on firefighting in 2018. The most expensive fires, Taylor Creek and Garner Complex, were caused by lightning. The majority of fires fought were human caused.

"[Fire season] didn't really start to peter out until pretty late in October," ODF Spokesperson Brian Ballou said. "We ran up a bill with just the district's fighting costs of $70 million."

Lightning-caused fires are open and shut investigations. Even small human-caused ones that don't grow more than an acre are pretty quick solves. Unless there's an obvious answer to big fires, like the Klamathon Fire caused by reckless burning, investigations and the resulting accountability could take years.

"The investigation means it's gone up for starting fire cost recovery," Ballou said.

Even when ODF can find evidence of who they think caused the fire, Ballou says the district that fights that fire may not get all the money back from the suspect.

Instead, the money goes into a general fund and gets distributed from there.

"If it's going to turn into a cost recovery case, it usually gets kicked a notch up the ladder to someone who is definitely on full-time staff and they will pursue it," Ballou said.

Human-caused fires are typically easier to get to than lightning-caused fires. Lightning can strike anywhere. Fires started by manmade construction or by people are usually closer to roads. This makes it easier for ODF to fight the fires because it's easier access.

That's why both the Taylor Creek and Garner Complex in 2018 took up $65 million of the $70 million ODF spent all season in Jackson and Josephine Counties. The hundreds of other fires ODF responded to only made up $5 million.

"[As an example] somebody saw you drop your cigarette in that dry grass and we had to spend $2000 to put it out? Then we're going to send you a bill for $2000," Ballou said.

ODF pursues most human-caused fires, even those smaller than an acre, but the big costs really come from using aircraft that carry water or retardant.

"That's the way it's got to be done; there's no better way of doing it," Ballou said. "There's no magic tool to rely on to extinguish large fires - doesn't exist."

When fire season comes to a close, ODF does lose a lot of resources. However, investigators are full-time employees so residents don't pay extra for them to stick around and figure out the cause of fires.

News 10 reached out to the state office of ODF to help provide data on spending, fire fighting and investigating back on January 22, 2019 but the data has not been sent yet.

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