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Up in Smoke

When fire engines get 4 mpg and cost $5,200 a day to operation, every wildfire brings its own financial storm to town.

By Jessica Lussenhop

THE SOUND of fire engines, walkie-talkies and helicopters may be endemic to the Lockheed fire, but so is the sound of an imaginary cash register ringing every time another engine roars into town. Though Cal Fire did not lose personnel in the latest state cuts, $27 million was lopped off its 2009-10 budget, and more than likely each of the local fire agencies that pitched in to battle the flames had its own troubles at home at budget time.

None of that matters when a 7,000-acre wildfire breaks out. "California has developed a 'seven points of light' agreement that says if anybody breaks a fire, the departments will send resources," says Cal Fire spokesman Mike Mohler. Yet with so little money to burn, it's hard not to wonder who's getting stuck with the mounting bill.

As of Friday morning, 667 firefighters struggled to contain the blaze, backed by 120 engines, 16 fire crews, 15 bulldozers, three water tenders and "multiple" aircraft. By Monday afternoon, after a massive weekend ramp-up, the figures had doubled or tripled: 2,165 firefighters, 295 engines, 21 fire crews, 28 bulldozers, 21 water tenders and 14 helicopters.

Cal Fire estimates the first 24 hours of the fire cost about $500,900, an estimate which has since risen to $9.8 million.

Cal Fire Division Chief David Samaniego says it costs $5,300 per day to run the largest engines, while smaller engines ring in at about $3,600. Each figure includes the cost of running the vehicle itself as well as the cost of paying the members of its crew. Each firefighter costs roughly $872 per day, with about $60 factored in for food, water and board.

While salaries and benefits are paid by their home base agencies, Cal Fire foots the room and board bill for as long as fire personnel enjoy the rustic comforts of the Santa Cruz Fairgrounds. One fairgrounds worker said on Friday that negotiations with Cal Fire over the cost of their command center and camp were ongoing, but added, "They do pay per day to be here, and they pay very well."

As of Friday there was no official count of how many firefighters were from outside the county, but trucks had arrived from Santa Clara, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and as far away as Penn Valley, Placer County, Sacramento, Los Angeles and San Diego. "A good 60 percent are out of county. That's just an educated guess," says Samaniego.

That means they had to get here first, and their trucks ain't exactly the Toyota Prius. A water-carrying vehicle can get 7 or 8 miles per gallon, while a larger fire engine comes in at 2 to 4 mpg. At $2.75 for a gallon of diesel fuel, a single large engine on a one-way trip from San Diego to Santa Cruz can run up a $645 tab at the pump.

The final bill ends up being a kind of pass-the-buck game. Initially, local fire departments are absorbing the costs of running their trucks, getting to and from the fire and paying their fire personnel's overtime, which kicks in after a three-day shift. Most of their expenses should be reimbursed by Cal Fire, which in turn will be reimbursed up to 75 percent by FEMA. But as some may recall, local governments don't always see those reimbursements in a timely fashion. And it leaves Cal Fire stuck holding the bag with 25 percent of what will likely become a multimillion dollar bill.

The silver lining? Samaniego says that there is no evidence that budget woes have directly affected the ability of Cal Fire to respond to the Lockheed disaster. "It has not hampered our initial attack capabilities. As far as the needs of the folks on the ground, that has not changed," he says.

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