County May Join Statewide Fire Suppression Account
The Campbell County Commissioners are considering contributing to the State Forestry Division’s statewide emergency fire suppression account (EFSA), to pay for some, if not all, fires in the upcoming wildland season.
Joining EFSA would be in the county’s best interest, Interim Fire Chief J.R. Fox informed the county commissioners during their regular meeting Tuesday.
Several fires in recent years have encumbered the city, county, and Town of Wright with hundreds of thousands of dollars in liability.
By joining EFSA, the county would be able to seek reimbursement from an account that receives millions of dollars in fire suppression funds annually.
As it stands, only two counties in Wyoming have not yet bought into the account: Campbell and Sweetwater.
State Forester Bill Crapser said that Sweetwater has declined to join, for now, due to their county makeup and checkerboard presence of the Bureau of Land Management, which pays for fire suppression efforts on all BLM-owned lands.
While federal agencies cover fire suppression costs on federally- owned lands and, in the past, they have also covered the cost of certain services, like air support.
But now, federal agencies are seeing their budgets shrink and have had to tighten their belts, meaning they’ve had to cut spending, Crapser said.
Up to this point, Campbell County has been able to benefit from the BLM’s more magnanimous approach, but that’s coming to an end.
“The BLM has always treated us really good,” Commissioner Mark Christensen remarked. “It just doesn’t look like that is going to be able to continue.
With federal agency funding withdrawing, EFSA could be the answer to the county’s fire suppression funding needs on county and private lands, if it holds enough funds to cover the costs.
Crapser said that EFSA started 2018 with $17 million; however, the account was drained to just over a million after it paid out to cover $14.5 million worth of fires and paid off a number of IOU’s to several counties.
Christensen asked, if the county joined the account, whether or not the account would have enough money to cover the costs of fire suppression efforts in Campbell County during the upcoming wildland season.
“I don’t want to join an account that may not continue to be well funded by the state,” he said.
Legislative support has been one of the deciding factors of whether or not the county would join EFSA.
Commission Chairman Rusty Bell said that, given the legislation currently in play, that it’s looking like the account is going to have money.
Senate File 26, which is making its way through the 2019 legislative session, would deposit $15 million into EFSA this year and would follow that up with another million-dollar appropriation every year after that.
House Bill 49 would stop leftover EFSA funds from returning to the state’s general fund every biennium, and would roll that money back into the account.
“Right now, we probably have the highest level of support from the state legislature than we’ve ever had for the account,” Crapser advised, though he also stated that he was not so naïve as to believe that support couldn’t disappear.
“If we were ever going to buy in, now would be the time,” Christensen said. “I’m seeing good stuff with this through the legislature but, unless you participate, you don’t benefit from any of those appropriations.”
“It just makes sense,” Commissioner Del Shelstad agreed, given that the account is receiving so much support from the state government.
Commissioner D.G. Reardon expressed his support as well, saying that the costs of fires would deplete the money that the county sets aside for fire suppression.
“I’m with Del, it makes perfect sense and this is a good time,” he said.
If the county decides to join the account, their dues would be equal to the amount of interest that the account accrues, around 10 percent. Generally speaking, around 90 percent of the money ever put in EFSA has come from the Legislature, Crapser said.
Robert Palmer, commission administrative director, said that the matter will appear before the board in time for the outlining of the fiscal year 2019/2020 budget.