Charges add up for response to Kasilof wildfire

Posted: Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Even though the Kasilof woman charged with starting a wildfire did not intend to do so, the Kenai District Attorney has charged her with three misdemeanors and gave her a bill for firefighter response.

“Intent is not a requirement of what she’s being charged with,” said June Stein, district attorney, about the actions of Brenda Cameron, 44.

Cameron has been asked to pay nearly $60,000 for the initial attack on the May 22 fire, which eventually burned 67 acres near Cohoe Loop.

The fire burned for more than a week through a heavily forested area, burning at least one shed, according to one report. No one was injured in the fire.

Kenai attorney Joe Ray Skrha has entered a “not guilty” plea to all charges against Cameron and has asked for a jury trial.

Charging documents say Cameron lit the fire near Mile 5 of North Cohoe Loop in Kasilof “without first clearing ground free from material which would carry fire.”

“I had it under control. Something in the pile just exploded. It was wet all around the burn,” Cameron said the day of the fire.

She said she had been burning brush in an attempt to finish creating a defensible perimeter around the house where she has lived for three years with her daughter and two sons.

“The state offered $59,000 something. They charged me on 10 acres,” Cameron said last week.

When asked if that was a plea offer in exchange for dropping the criminal charges, Cameron said, “No. They charged me on all three (counts), which are all really the same thing.”

She said she did nothing reckless.

As required by state law, Cameron had called the Division of Forestry that day to activate an open-burn permit. Forestry told her it was OK to burn.

She said the day before was cloudy and damp with the temperature at 45 degrees. The day when she decided to activate her burn permit, it was still cool and clear and there was no wind, she said.

A suspension was placed on open burning the next day due to dry, windy conditions, according to Patrick Quiner, a fire prevention officer.

Cameron said she burned a defense line of grass all around the fire area before burning the pile, and kept the area wet.

She said she believes it was an old paint can in the middle of some old boards and rubbish that exploded.

“When that thing blew up, all I saw was flames coming up from the middle of the fire and I heard this whoosh,” she said.

“When I ran over there, a beetle kill tree went up. It was 50 feet away and not even on my property,” she said.

“I called 911 right away.”

State statutes allow the forestry division to bill the person responsible for starting a wildfire as much as twice the cost of the initial response.

The cost of the initial attack, according to Quiner, would include the cost of Central Emergency Services responders, two helicopters, multiple air tanker flights and the retardant they dropped, and the smoke jumpers who came in to help battle the blaze.

Another forestry fire prevention officer, Sharon Roesch, said the estimated cost of fighting the wildfire is $195,000 for the resources used between May 22 and 27, when the fire was declared contained.

The $60,000 figure is what the state is billing for the initial attack through the end of the first shift at midnight on May 22.

That does not include administrative support costs, the cost of ground support or the restocking of supplies used.

“Sixty thousand was the actual cost of resources on the fire line,” Roesch said.

She said the cost of sending in air tankers is $1,500 per hour, plus the cost of the dropped retardant, which goes for $2 a gallon. The tankers delivered four 3,000-gallon loads of retardant on the Kasilof fire.

A PC-7 fixed-wing target detection and lead plane also was used at an hourly cost of $425.

Two helicopters were used to drop water on the blaze. The state contracted rate for the Bell 212 helicopters is $800 an hour, and for the Aero Stars, it’s $400 an hour.

“Those are the dry rates,” said Roesch, meaning the price does not include the cost of fuel, which can range from $2.68 a gallon to $5.

Two Bureau of Land Management CL 215 Ducks aircraft water tankers also were used at a dry hourly rate of $1,200.

In addition to the air assault, ground fire fighting equipment and personnel also were brought in from Central Emergency Services, the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, BLM and the Kenai Fire Department, as well as Alaska Division of Forestry firefighters.

Roesch said Forestry has a cooperative agreement with CES compensating the agency after the first two hours on the scene. She said the rates vary depending on the number of personnel and the types of fire trucks they send.

The state has reciprocating agreements with federal agencies that account for the costs of wildlife refuge responders and the BLM smoke jumpers.

The day-by-day costs of fighting the Kasilof fire were $78,000 on May 22; $47,000 May 23; $20,000 May 24; $21,000 May 25; $26,000 May 26; and $2,000 May 27, according to Roesch.

The Alaska statute under which Cameron is charged with uncontrolled spread of fire states “the escape of fire is presumptive evidence of negligence by the person responsible for starting the fire, and unless rebutted is sufficient to sustain a conviction.”

In other words, because the fire escaped Cameron’s control, she was negligent.

Trial call is set for Sept. 21 in Kenai District Court.

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