Arizona wildfire could spread to New Mexico

Firefighters sleep at the incident command post for the Wallow fire June 8, 2011 in Springerville, Ariz.

Tess Vigeland: Firefighters haven't been able to make much progress on that 600-square-mile forest fire in Arizona. Thousands of people have been evacuated from their homes, and flames are now headed toward transmission lines that carry electricity as far away as Texas.

But fires are also burning in Texas, Alaska, New Mexico and Georgia. And flooding continues to threaten areas across the Midwest. Tornado sites around the country still need cleaning up. Last year, the U.S. logged a record number of federal disasters. This year stands to break that record.

And in the thick of all these crises, states have no money to cover the expense. Marketplace's Eve Troeh reports.

Eve Troeh: When big fires hit, states rally. So Oregon pilots are dropping red, fire-killing chemicals over Arizona blazes. Rod Nichols at the Oregon Department of Forestry says that helps his agency's budget.

Rod Nichols: Our people are off our payroll for a while, and on the payroll of whichever state they're working for.

Oregon won't send the bill to Arizona until everyone's home.

Nichols: Administrative people often talk about the real fire season occurring after, meaning all the accounting.

Arizona's bill could be mostly picked up by the feds, if President Obama declares a national disaster. But he'll only do that if lots of homes and businesses burned. Arizona won't know how many until flames die down.

Eric Holdeman consults communities on emergency management.

Eric Holdeman: That's why there's this intense pressure on getting a presidential declaration, because without it, then there's nothing for the individual citizens because they don't have a disaster program whatsoever.

He says many states raided disaster funds to fill budget gaps, so governors depend on federal aid.

But it's subjective. The White House didn't label Texas fires a national disaster. The burn area's mostly sagebrush. Now the Texas governor has to find money for cleanup.

Holdeman: He has no additional relief, and that's just putting him further in the hole. They're going to have to cut other programs.

Holdeman says smaller scale disasters can be the biggest problem for states. If, say, a tornado destroys a few homes, residents have only broke local agencies and charity to turn to.

I'm Eve Troeh for Marketplace.

About the author

Eve Troeh is News Director at WWNO-FM in New Orleans, La., helping build the first public radio news department in the station’s 40-year history. She reported for the Marketplace Sustainability Desk from 2010 to 2013.
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It seems the most likely way that many people will finally wake to the new realities brought about by climate change, invasive species, habitat destruction, and etc will be when the bills for natural disasters keep piling up higher and higher as the disasters become more frequent and more severe and the natural world that supports all economies is further depleated .

Your report about needing a federal disaster declaration for states and other local govt agencies to get reimbursed for fighting wildland fires was incorrect. As a formal federal (US Forest Service) firefighter, I know that states and local govts get reimbursed by the feds just by showing up at large wildland fires because the US Forest Service is the main "administrator" The National Incident Command System is mostly staffed by US Forest Service personnel who are in charge of most large fires. If the feds are in charge, everyone gets paid back, its all in their mutual aid agreements. In addition, they get paid back handsomely, as most fed firefighters get paid a fraction of local govt and state firefighters. At fed fires, US Forest Service firefighters, most temporaries get around $13/hr (no pay when sleeping) and they can be working next to a municipal firefighter who gets paid $60/hr (clock does not stop when they sleep). Wildland fires are real cash cows for local govt and state firefighters--its a well kept secret that's the huge drain on US Forest Service firefighting budgets. But the FS is stuck, because there is no way they could/would ever hire enough temporaries to fight fires for 3-5 months a year.

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