Just two months into its new fiscal year, the state has already burned through 59 percent of its $182 million emergency firefighting fund.
To lessen the financial blow, Calfire and local fire departments may receive 75 percent in federal relief for costs incurred at the recent Yuba and 49er fires, according to Deputy Chief Randy Smith of Calfire's Nevada-Yuba-Placer Unit.
Both fires qualified for assistance because structures burned and infrastructure was threatened at the outset, Smith said.
The Yuba Fire cost that county an estimated $1 million and Calfire another estimated $12.1 million to fight. The cost for fighting the recent 49er Fire in Placer County is estimated at $1.4 million and counting, Smith said.
Nevada County is expected to be reimbursed for the overtime sheriff's deputies put in securing roads and neighborhoods during July's Yuba Fire. That cost estimate was unavailable from the Sheriff's Department Wednesday.
If one of those major fires was to hit on federal land in Nevada County or areas outside its cities, the first eight hours would be on the local fire agencies. After that, "It's on the state's dime," according to Nevada County Consolidated Fire District Chief Tim Fike.
After the eight hours, "If it escapes, or continues, they start paying us for the fire suppression," Fike said Wednesday. "When it gets into extended time, people start talking money."
"We are responsible for structures, property and life safety," Fike said. "The state is responsible for the wildlands, but we do all missions based on first-resource response agreements," outside of cities and federal property.
"The cost of just a one-acre fire attack is $25,000 - minimum," Fike said, based on Calfire figures. "When you get crews, dozers, aircraft, engines going on a state, local and Forest Service response, that's an amazing amount of equipment."
"Once a (major) fire is established and it requires an incident management team and aircraft, it averages about $750,000 to $1 million a day," said Fike, who is also a Deputy Incident Commander on federal fires the U.S. government pays for.
On federal fires, "whoever hosts an incident pays for it typically," Fike said, whether it be on Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service or National Park lands.
"Quite often, it goes onto multiple lands and everyone pays for it," Fike said.
Nevada County's checkerboard of federal, state and private wildlands makes it tough to figure out at times, Fike said, and who pays for what can get complicated in negotiations between agencies.
Jean Pincha-Tulley, Fire Chief of the Tahoe National Forest in Nevada City, also knows the cost of wildland blazes. Pincha-Tulley has been an incident commander on the largest fires in the west for five years and a commander on smaller fires for 15 years.
Pincha-Tulley just returned from the LaBrea Fire on the Los Padres National Forest in Southern California.
"After 15 days we had spent $32 million," Pincha-Tulley said. "We've spent almost a quarter of a billion dollars on the Los Padres in the last five years," fighting fires.
Each major fire camp sets up a finance unit as part of its mini-city approach, Pincha-Tulley said. Reports of hours worked are brought into the units, which also track fuel, food, medical and all other costs.
Aviation costs can add up quickly, Pincha-Tulley said. The air tankers at the Nevada County Airport run about $5,000 per flight hour and one load of retardant is about $4,000, she added.
At the 89,000-acre La Brea Fire, "we spent $9 million just on aviation," she said.
Although some people might not see it, the incident commanders are judicious in their use of planes and retardant because of the costs, Pincha-Tulley said.
As fires wind down, the most expensive items, such as planes, helicopters and contract firefighters, are the first to be let go, Pincha-Tulley said.
Another way to keep firefighting costs down is to thin overstocked forests in the west, according to Pincha-Tulley and Joanne Drummond, executive director of the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County.
At the La Brea Fire, "We hooked into a 20,000-acre thinned and burned area and it held it really well. It allowed us to catch it," Pincha-Tulley said.
"The Forest Service has a lot of thinning projects funded for the Sierra region to protect the urban-wildland interface and watersheds.
"We'd rather do that on our terms than fight these huge, fuel-driven fires we're seeing in L.A. right now," Pincha-Tulley said.
A fire the size of the La Brea Fire, "Would be devastating on the Tahoe," Pincha-Tulley said. "We're trying to thin to make fires less devastating."
There is a relationship between fighting wildfire in cleared land compared to fighting it on the Sierra's mostly-choked National Forests, according to Drummond.
When lightning fires struck before Smoky Bear was popular, they naturally burned off smaller trees and brush on the forest floor that allowed more sun and nutrients for the larger trees.
When a fire strikes an opened stand like that now, it tends to run through the forest and keep out of the crowns, which results in little harm to the larger trees and fewer resources needed to save them, Drummond said.
When a fire hits a choked stand, it often runs into the crowns and everything can burn, Drummond said.
"In this third year of drought, we're not thinning enough for wildfire," Drummond said.
Some local and national environmentalists have said in the past that clearing in state and federal timberlands was simply a ruse for logging companies to make money.
In recent years, some moderate environmentalists and logging industry groups have agreed that thinning protects forests from catastrophic wildfire and gives local economies a boost.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Tuesday that the unpredictable costs of fighting wildfire is the reason he wanted to ensure California had a $500 million reserve fund this year.
The Republican governor used his line-item veto authority to cut $489 million from social service programs in the budget the state Legislature sent him in July to restore the reserve fund.
To contact Senior Staff Writer Dave Moller, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4237. The Associated Press contributed to this report.