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Since 2008, when Cal Fire's Civil Cost Recovery Program began, the state has recovered more than $93 million from folks whose wayward fires required suppression, investigation and followup by the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire).
That's taxpayers' money, says Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant, and it goes straight back into the general fund (from whence Cal Fire draws its funding).

Recovering costs usually isn't as simple as sending out a letter of demand and getting a check back pronto.

"Most of the time the individual is not going to pay, and it goes to court," Berlant says. "But before court, we often will go into arbitration, and both parties will settle on a reasonable amount. Our goal is to recover the taxpayer money on a fire that should have been prevented."

According to a Feb. 17 Sacramento Bee story, the agency has been doing a bang-up job of that since 2005, when it began dedicating more funds to the task. In 2008, the state created the official Civil Cost Recovery Program, a 14-staff "squadron of lawyers, fire accountants and investigators," as the Bee puts it. Annual fire cost recovery has soared. In 2001, the agency recovered less than $2 million. In 2008-09 -- $11.8 million. In 2010-11 -- $35.6 million (a record, says the Bee, noting that the state spent just less than $3 million on the unit that year).

"In state budget circles," notes the Bee, "the unit is considered a financial success for its high return on investment -- so much so that Gov. Jerry Brown is asking lawmakers in his new budget to expand the permanent staff from 14 to 24."

Critics accuse the state of using the cost recovery unit to bolster the ailing state budget, and the unit of being overly aggressive -- especially toward big "deep pocket" companies, including some large timber and utility outfits -- in its tactics and calculations.

Barry Evans and his fire are small-fry compared with some of those bigger cases Cal Fire deals with (and, to be clear, he hasn't accused the agency or the state's recovery unit of overreaching). Here is a breakdown of the cost of his Spanish Fire, according to the "letter of demand" for payment he received from Cal Fire:

Personnel: $48,390.14 ($22,395.98 straight time plus $25,994.16 overtime)
Equipment: $21,148.90
Operating expenses: $54,826.37
Aircraft: $7,207.20
Incident subtotal: $131,572.61
Administrative charge at 9.36 percent: $12,315.20
Incident total charges: $143,887.81

Following arbitration, Evans' insurance company paid $100,000, and the case was settled.

   

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Heidi Walters

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Heidi Walters has been a staff writer with the North Coast Journal since 2005.

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