Who should pay when a wildfire ignites?
On a windy summer afternoon, what came to be called the Washoe Fire started at a private residence two miles south of Tahoe City.
At the time of the Aug. 19 blaze, fire officials said the 20-acre wildfire that destroyed five homes was started by a propane barbecue located on the back deck of a residence on Washoe Way.
Last week, Chief Duane Whitelaw of the North Tahoe Fire Protection District asked the district’s board of directors who should pay for the firefighting response.
“The fact that North Tahoe Fire’s costs are public [money], I asked the board if we should consider cost recovery,” Whitelaw said in a subsequent interview.
The district’s directors took Whitelaw’s question under advisement.
Whitelaw would not estimate the cost of the fire district’s expenses in fighting the Washoe Fire, but said the cost to assign a hand crew for a single day is around $40,000.
Calfire’s foremost expert on cost recovery, Chief Dave Hillman, said circumstances usually dictate who the state agency charges for fire suppression.
“If it was an accidental fire we would not pursue a civil case,” Hillman said. “The other side [is], if it [was] negligence, if it was a preventable fire. If it was a violation of law, we could not only charge for a misdemeanor we could pursue repayment.”
Speaking of fault, the Interchange Fire that consumed 80 acres of brush and forest near Donner Lake three days after the Washoe inferno started, was ignited by a hired contractor of Sierra Pacific Power Company.
Chief Brad Harris of Calfire’s Placer-Yuba-Nevada Unit in Auburn said although he does not know if the electric company already was sent a bill, they would most certainly receive one.
“Generally we bill for the full cost of suppression,” Harris said.
Harris said Calfire seeks damages regularly and because of the risks associated with utility work, virtually every public utility has received a bill from Calfire at one time or another.
He said the largest bill he can remember a private party paying was the $12.5 million charged to Southern California Edison. The utility had inadvertently touched off the 1996 Calabasas Fire that torched several thousand acres in the Santa Monica Mountains.
He said the Truckee Fire district “will pay nothing” for the Interchange Fire because it occurred in an area where the state agency is responsible.
As for responsibility for the West Shore blaze, Whitelaw said he is waiting for the results of the investigation to be published in an After Action Report, which will determine, among other things if the August fire was an accident or the result of negligence.
Whitelaw said the report will be presented at the next North Tahoe Fire board meeting scheduled for Nov. 14. The report will also include “what can we learn from the Washoe fire and what can we do better,” Whitelaw said.
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