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Feds rely on locals to fight wildfires in national forests

Firefighter Craig Ogden of the Red Rock Interagency Crew looks on before going to fight the Wallow Fire in Luna, N.M. June 10. (AP Photo/ The Arizona Republic, David Wallace)

Firefighter Craig Ogden of the Red Rock Interagency Crew looks on before going to fight the Wallow Fire in Luna, N.M. June 10. (AP Photo/ The Arizona Republic, David Wallace)

When national forests go up in flames, as they are doing across Arizona right now, the U.S. government turns to local firefighters to help contain the blazes.

With roughly 700,000 acres already charred by three wildfires — the Wallow, Horseshoe II and Monument fires — local Arizona fire departments have dispatched 850 firefighters, 115 engines and five ambulances to the rural reaches of the state.

“Interagency is the middle name of fire suppression,” said Ken Frederick, spokesman for the National Fire Interagency Center, which coordinates fighting wild fires nationwide. “No agency has the standing army of firefighting resources to do the total job.”

The Arizona Forestry Division, charged with fighting fires on the 22 million acres of state land and unincorporated private land, has the help of 250 departments that are under contract to provide firefighters and equipment for the wild fires.

State Forester Scott Hunt said utilizing local departments is a cost-effective way of meeting its responsibilities.

“If we didn’t have these fire departments to use and we had to put our own fire stations out there and train our own people, it would be quite an expensive proposition,” he said.

When local firefighters are called into action to fight wildfires, they are funded with what amounts to short-term, no-interest loans from local coffers. If the fire occurs on federal land, reimbursement often takes longer.

Chief Jeff Piechura of Northwest Fire District, a district that covers northwest Tucson metropolitan area and Marana, said the departments pay the specially trained firefighters they send to the wildfires on their regular pay schedule.

The bill for the work passes to the state, then to the federal government, which sends payment to the state before the money finally lands back with the department.

Piechura said state reimbursements arrive almost immediately after billing, but it takes between 60 and 90 days before the federal reimbursement arrives.

“It’s kind of cumbersome, but it’s that check and balance piece,” Piechura said.

The state audits the bills so that the federal government gets them without any errors or issues.

“Once it goes to the feds, if there’s an issue with it, it sits on somebody’s desk,” Piechura said.

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