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Worth every penny

Worth every pennyFrom the boots on the ground to support from the sky, the cost of fighting a fire can ' and can't ' be measured in dollars A million bucks might still set you up for life, but it won't buy a long weekend of firefighting when a big wildland fire gets rolling.

Suppression costs ran as high as &

36;500,000 per day at the height of the Timbered Rock fire, when ground crews, fire engines, bulldozers, air tankers and helicopters were all working to contain the flames.

As of Saturday, the fire had cost &

36;5 million, and firefighters estimate total costs could run to &

36;6.8 million.

Where does it all go?

Start with your basic firefighter on the ground. Most of them are hired on contract by the Oregon Department of Forestry because the state agency can't afford to hire as many employees as it needs when a big fire breaks out.

Contractors offer their 20-person crews at rates that range around &

36;25 to &

36;30 per person per hour, or &

36;500 to &

36;600 per hour for the whole crew. Crews often work 12-hour shifts, which puts the bill for one crew for one shift around &

36;6,000.

There were 48 20-person crews working the Timbered Rock fire Saturday. Contractors provide their crews with fire-retardant clothing, safety gear and tools.

It costs nearly &

36;500 to put a firefighter in the field with the equipment to keep him or her safe in a dangerous environment.

Firefighters wear a plastic safety helmet (&

36;29 at Cascade Fire Supply in Medford) to protect them from falling branches. Clothing made of fire-resistant synthetic fabric called Nomex protects them from burns. Shirt and pants each cost about &

36;100. Goggles (&

36;29) protect firefighters' eyes from sparks and hot steam that flares up when water hits burning material, hot soil, or superheated rocks. Thick leather gloves (&

36;12) protect their hands. Many wear a belt-and-suspender arrangement known as web gear (&

36;92) to carry their water canteens, lunch, and everything else they may want to take into the field for a work day that might last 12 to 14 hours, and could go overnight.

Firefighters also carry a fire shelter (&

36;87) to protect themselves from flames if they should find themselves surrounded by fire. The metal-foil tents (jokingly called brown-in-bags) have saved the lives of dozens of firefighters, including a crew that had to shelter up in eastern Oregon in July.

I've heard of costs as high as &

36;100,000 to equip a crew, says Mike Wheelock, president of Grayback Forestry, in Merlin. In years when there's no fires, (fielding a crew) is a real gamble.

Firefighters typically buy their own footgear. Many favor boots with extra-thick soles that allow them to stand on hot soil or ashes without discomfort. The best boots typically cost about &

36;350. Lower-cost boots don't last long in the heat of fire, and walking up and down steep slopes.

Firefighters' hand tools are a bargain compared to almost everything else. A fire shovel (&

36;35) has a sharpened edge along the sides of the blade that allows firefighters to use their shovel to cut roots. The Pulaski (&

36;30) is a combination axe and grub hoe, named for the man who pioneered its use in forestry. The adze hoe (&

36;35) has a heavy, wide grubbing blade made of thick steel that firefighters use to chop roots in the soil as they scrape a fire line.

Fire engines that go out on forest roads to bring water to firefighters and douse hot spots cost about &

36;90 to &

36;100 per hour. The trucks carry from 250 to 500 gallons of water, a crew of three people and pumps and hoses to put water where firefighters need it. There were 50 engines working the Timbered Rock fire on Saturday.

Air tankers and helicopters help firefighters get the upper hand against wildfires, but aircraft drive up the cost tremendously.

On a typical fire, you can easily spend 40 percent of your suppression costs on air operations, said David Morman, an information officer working the Timbered Rock fire.

A 3,000-gallon load of flame retardant chemicals costs about &

36;2,400, and flight time for the airplane costs about &

36;3,000 per hour, said Phil Cardin, who works at the U.S. Forest Service air tanker base at the Medford airport. If an airplane spent 45 minutes in the air flying to a fire, dropping its load and returning to the tanker base, the bill would run about &

36;4,700, Cardin said.

Air tankers also pay landing fees to the airport every time they touch down, Cardin noted. The fees, which range from &

36;100 to &

36;150 depending on the size of the airplane, help the airport service and maintain the runways.

When fires last for days, fire bosses have to arrange for the care and feeding of hundreds of firefighters. For the Timbered Rock fire, the group camping area at Stewart State Park became a city of firefighters with a population (1,200) as large as Gold Hill.

We bring in almost everything it would take to run a small town, said Bernie Bochsler, logistics chief at the Timbered Rock fire.

Bochsler said feeding firefighters costs about &

36;25 per person per day. Fire camps also have to provide places for firefighters to wash off the grime. A portable shower unit with about 12 heads costs about &

36;3,000 per day. Forestry officials brought two shower units to the Timbered Rock fire.

Portable toilets are a prominent feature at every fire camp. The general rule of thumb is one toilet for about every 10 firefighters, said Allegra Kohn, of D & D Porta Potti, which hauled more than 100 toilets to firefighters working the Florence fire in Josephine County. The toilets rent for about &

36;98 a day, which includes daily cleaning, Kohn said. With everything else the firefighters have to go through, they don't need dirty toilets.

Money to pay all the bills comes from several sources. The Legislature appropriates money from the general fund. Owners of forest land pay a per-acre assessment in their property tax, and a tax on harvested timber also adds to the pot, which totals &

36;15 million. Oregon also has a forest-fire insurance policy with Lloyd's of London. The policy pays for as much as &

36;43 million in firefighting costs after Oregon spends &

36;10 million.

Firefighters expect to draw heavily on that policy for the second straight year. There's some concern that Lloyd's might raise the policy's &

36;3.45-million premium substantially, or raise the &

36;10 million deductible or drop the coverage entirely.

Every service needed for firefighters has a hidden cost. For instance, to provide and maintain portable bathroom facilities costs $100 a day. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell