Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion In this May 20, 2014 file photo the Funny River wildfire spreads more than 10 miles long and one mile wide on the Kenai Peninsula. The wildfire cost several million dollars to combat, however the Kenai Peninsula Borough recouped much of its costs. It expects to do the same for the Card Street wildfire.

Borough to be reimbursed for fire expenditures

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Office of Emergency Management is hopeful that most, if not all, of the funds it spent responding to the Card Street fire will be reimbursed through the State of Alaska and agreements with the Alaska Division of Forestry.

Emergency Management Director Scott Walden met with members of the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management on July 9 to present the office’s preliminary expenditures and to seek reimbursement. Presently, the OEM has spent an estimated total of $58,000 in response to the Card Street fire. An estimated $80,000 has been spent by Central Emergency Services on equipment and personnel after being called upon to help by the Alaska Division of Forestry, and an estimated $67,000 has been spent by Nikiski Emergency Services for the same things, Walden said.

Local Expenses

The funds spent by the OEM must be accounted for, presented to the Division of Homeland Security, and reimbursed through the state, Walden said. This year, he said he is optimistic most of the expenditures will be reimbursed because of the state disaster declared by Gov. Bill Walker in response to Kenai Peninsula fires.

The declaration activated the state’s Public Assistance Program, which provides relief for state, local and tribal agencies who spend money responding to emergencies. A Fire Management Assistance Declaration was also made by the Federal Emergency Management Agency in response to Alaska fires.

When funds are reimbursed federally, they are reimbursed at 75 percent of the total costs, Walden said. In this case, the state will provide reimbursement based on its own evaluation, and Walden said most of the expenditures made by his office should be covered.

“We will know fairly soon,” Walden said. “That doesn’t mean we are guaranteed to get it. A lot of it depends on the state’s ability to fund and that sort of thing.”

The reimbursements, or at least agreements for them, should be announced by the state in 30-45 days, Walden said.

Walden’s office gets an immediate $50,000 emergency response fund to work from during disasters, but must pull from its general budget when it runs out.

“It doesn’t take very long to spend $50,000,” Walden said.

The cost estimates for the OEM can be further broken down into expenditures for roads, solid waste, land management and costs for the office, geographic mapping services and administration.

About $5,000 went to roads. Walden described actions that accumulate road costs as identifying hazard areas where there were fallen trees, identifying areas where solid waste dumpsters could be placed and adding gravel to certain areas to make travel and dumpster placement easier. Walden said road expenses during last year’s Funny River Horse Trail fire were amassed through smoothing out sections of road and performing dust control.

Expenditures for solid waste, which are estimated at $10,000, are ongoing and are a new expense, said OEM Program Coordinator Dan Nelson.

During the Funny River Horse Trail fire, no primary structures were lost, so the office did not need to provide waste dumpsters or other means for residents to clean up their property, Nelson said. This year, the borough has provided dumpsters in the Kenai Keys, as well as a collection site for more hazardous materials to be dropped off by residents later this month, which accounted for the solid waste expenses.

An estimated $20,000 will be spent on upcoming land management projects, Nelson said. This work will include identifying areas where brush needs to be cleared off of property, as well as management of those sites. It will take several weeks to tally the final costs for land management and solid waste projects, since both are ongoing, Nelson said.

The OEM also spent an estimated $23,000 on office costs, geographical information systems and administrative costs.

“That’s kind of everybody else that doesn’t get broken up specially,” Nelson said. “We have an incident management team which is made up of people from all different departments.”

The OEM has four staff members, so everyone else brought in to help during a disaster is paid under this line of expense, Nelson said. Those in charge of geographical information must be paid as well.

“They’re the ones putting out some of the public information mapping that you see,” Nelson said.

Administrative costs refer to staff members in management, call center, liaison and other positions, Nelson said.

During an emergency, the OEM generally tallies its preliminary costs and reports them to the Borough Assembly, which decides whether to appropriate additional response funds. Walden said this wasn’t necessary this year, and that the OEM worked entirely out of its general budget to respond to the Card Street fire.

The fire occurred very near the end of the office’s fiscal year, Nelson said. If the money hadn’t been spent on responding to the fire, it would have been put back into the general fund for future use.

Last year, the Funny River Horse Trail fire cost the OEM slightly less than $39,100 after reimbursements. Walden said the cost could be attributed to a lack of a declared state disaster and the fact that certain expenses, like manning crisis lines, were new to the office and therefore not accounted for as a reimbursable expense.

Division of Forestry

When it comes to emergency response agencies and private entities who were called upon for help, the Division of Forestry will reimburse them through previously-established agreements, said Howie Kent, fire management officer with the Division of Forestry.

“We do it immediately,” Kent said. “Once the paperwork leaves our office and gets into Juneau, it takes them about three weeks.”

Kent said the Division of Forestry reimburses not only agencies like CES with preexisting agreements, but also private cooperators, such as entities that provide bulldozers during a fire. Kent said most of the emergency response agencies involved with the Card Street fire, including CES, Kachemak Emergency Services, Ninilchik Emergency Services, the Seward Fire Department and the Valdez Fire Department, have submitted their paperwork for reimbursement.

The Division of Forestry will in turn seek its own reimbursement at the state and federal level, through both FEMA and legislation.

“All the money that we get to operate is legislative-approved,” Kent said. “It has to come through the legislature.”

Funds can be reimbursed through FEMA only if they were spent while FEMA’s fire management assistance declaration was in place, Kent said.

“(The declaration) has to meet certain criteria,” Kent said. “Typically when structures are burned or lost, FEMA gets involved and they can either approve or deny a FEMA declaration.”

That declaration was approved on June 16 and was removed about halfway through the Card Street fire fight, Kent said. The Division of Forestry was subsequently given a different code to charge its expenses to. The costs racked up after the declaration was removed will have to be reimbursed through either state legislation or the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Kent said.

In the case of the Card Street fire, about 80 percent of the land burned was on federal or tribal land, and therefore under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s jurisdiction. About 20 percent was state, private, municipal or borough land, which is under the Division of Forestry’s jurisdiction. The expenses generated from responding to fire on that 20 percent of total land is what the state will be responsible for, Kent said.

It is too soon to tell whether the majority of those costs will be covered by FEMA or legislation, Kent said. Since the state is responsible for all Alaska fires, not just the Card Street fire, it may wait until the end of this year’s fire season to tally all costs and begin reimbursing the Division of Forestry. Kent said there is no estimated time frame for this process, but that the Division of Forestry will submit its own paperwork as soon as possible.

Costs for the Card Street fire are still accumulating. As of July 10, the fire had amassed more than $6.5 million in costs, and the projected final incident cost is $8 million, according to the Alaska Joint Information Center.

Reach Megan Pacer at megan.pacer@peninsulaclarion.com

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