Station bean counters: $96 million

Hours before sunrise, Teresa Fork rolls out of her tent, laces her boots, and heads for the finance section on the biggest fire in Los Angeles County history. Her team is one of five finance teams the U.S. Forest Service has on call, and members come from all over the country. Teresa Fork’s “day job” is managing USFS timber contracts, but she’s worked on about 100 fires in the last 25 years.

A story in the Wall Street Journal notes that the 160,000-acre Station Fire on the Angeles National Forest, at 91 percent containment, has run up expenses of just under $96 million. The fire had over 4,500 personnel assigned at its peak; two firefighters were killed and thousands of homes were evacuated.

According to the finance team, on a typical day they rang up $2,150 a day for washers and dryers, plus $1 per pound for 1,914 pounds of laundry. Then there’s the medical center at $2,900 per day, the 12-sink washing station at $2,600 per day — and the wages for firefighters.

Nathan Stephens says his Blue Ridge Hotshots from Happy Jack, Arizona, were sleeping in the black and put in 125 hours of overtime on the Station Fire. Kim Ann Parsons, a former firefighter who now tracks the daily breakdown of fire costs, said that as of yesterday, $14.8 million was spent on aircraft — just 15 percent of the fire’s total budget.

But the costs aren’t over when the fire is contained, and determining who pays for what is a complex process. “Long after the fire is out, you’ll still be dealing with the finance side,” said Incident Commander Mike Dietrich. “Bills have to be paid. And you have to figure out who’s paying.” The fire was mostly on the Angeles, but burned onto county, city, and state lands; it’s now being managed by Mike Wakoski’s Type 2 team.

California has already burned through $123.7 million of its $182 million fire suppression budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year, and this is just September.

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