- U.S. NEWS
- SEPTEMBER 16, 2009
Mrs. Fork’s Band of Bean Counters Lives, Works in Firefighter Camps; ‘Mommy, Nana’s at a Fire’
By TAMARA AUDI
SANTA FE DAM RECREATION AREA, Calif. — Hours before sunrise, Teresa Fork rolled out of her tent, laced up her boots and got to work on the biggest fire in Los Angeles County history.
There were glitches to fix in a new expense-tracking computer program, two land-use contracts to renegotiate and a colorful pie chart to review.
Mrs. Fork is in fire finance.
Since it erupted on Aug. 26, the Station fire — named for the Angeles National Forest ranger station near where it started — has consumed 160,577 acres and $95.9 million. At the fire’s peak, more than 4,500 firefighters and support people from as far away as Tennessee were working on it. As of Tuesday, the fire was 91% contained and firefighters were hoping to extinguish it by Saturday.
Hundreds of firefighters hacked through the wilderness to create firebreaks and beat back the blaze at its southern edge in order to protect houses. Two firefighters were killed; thousands of homes were evacuated. A menacing plume of white smoke hung over Los Angeles for days, and flames created an ominous orange glow just beyond the city.
Back at fire base camp, Mrs. Fork’s U.S. Forest Service team calculated the laundry bill. On Sept. 5, 1,914 pounds of clothes were washed, at a cost of $1 a pound, plus $2,150 a day for washers and dryers.
Mrs. Fork oversees a team of 13 who track every penny spent on the massive effort, from a rolling medical center ($2,900 a day), to an outdoor bank of 12 sinks ($2,600 a day). They also make sure every firefighter is paid. The bean counters live and work alongside firefighters in sprawling fire camps, sleeping in tents, waking before dawn and showering in a tractor-trailer.
“Long after the fire is out, you’ll still be dealing with the finance side,” said Station fire commander Mike Dietrich. “Bills have to be paid. And you have to figure out who’s paying.”
On the Station fire, finances are especially complicated. A big map in a finance trailer shows green straight lines outlining the boundary of the Angeles National Forest, which is the responsibility of the U.S. Forest Service. A jagged black line shows the fire, which has spilled outside the forest and into county, city and state territories. Who pays often depends on where the fire is burning.
With dozens of crews from different agencies, untangling the fire’s cost requires some intricate accounting. Moreover, local fire departments facing tight budgets are eager to collect for their services. For example, Los Angeles sent an ambulance to the fire camp and the U.S. Forest Service agreed to reimburse the city.
California has already burned through $123.7 million of its $182 million fire-suppression budget for the 2009-10 fiscal year. It plans to get some of that money back through grants from the federal government.
Mrs. Fork trudges through dusty, mostly male fire camps wearing glasses and a gold heart pendant around her neck that says “Nana” — a gift from her 5-year-old grandson. One of her chores is getting the exhausted, soot-covered firefighters to fill out time cards as they exit a burning forest. Many are from federal “hotshot” crews — firefighters dropped into the hottest and most dangerous fire zones.
“These are our problem children,” she says, pointing to a white poster board with a list of names written in black marker — firefighters who have not filled out time cards, or whose handwriting is difficult to read.
Nathan Stephens, captain of the Blue Ridge hotshot crew based in Happy Jack, Ariz., stepped into the finance trailer fresh off the fire line to fill out time cards for his crew. His face was coated with ash from three days in the burning wilderness, where the crew slept in “the black” — burnt-out areas close to the active fire.
For many firefighters and private contractors, fire season is an economic lifeline. “Our time and pay is pretty much the most important thing for my crew,” said Mr. Stephens. Federal firefighter salaries range from around $12 an hour to more than $22. Many firefighters work just part of the year. “We don’t really make a whole lot of money so we look forward to the overtime through the summer,” he said.
Each firefighter on Mr. Stephens’s crew of 22 made 125 hours of overtime fighting the Station fire, Mr. Stephens said.
“I wasn’t thinking about cost or anything like that when I was out there cutting a line and sleeping by the fire. You’re hot, you’re sweaty, you’re tired,” said Kim Ann Parsons, who has fought forest fires herself and now generates the daily pie chart breaking down costs. As of Tuesday, $14.8 million, or 15% of the total budget, has been spent on aircraft.
The finance team is at times exposed to hazards when fire has roared close to their camps. In case they need to flee quickly, they keep all the files in storage containers near the door. Like the thousands of firefighters at the Station camp, the finance team sleeps in tents crowded over the vast lawn of the Santa Fe Dam Recreation Area. Ants have been a problem lately.
Team members said they usually rise around 4 a.m. to line up with firefighters for showers and breakfast, before starting their work at 6. That goes on until about 10 each night.
“It isn’t a comfy, cushy life we lead,” said Sherry Rose, a human-resources specialist for the Forest Service, who is based in Albuquerque. She was called in to help document firefighter injury-claims for the finance team. “My husband called the other day and said, ‘Are you busy?’ And I said, ‘Well, I have two broken arms, pinkeye and a poison oak standing here. But no, I’m not busy.'”
The U.S. Forest Service has five finance teams like Mrs. Fork’s who are on call, for two weeks at a time. Team members are pulled in from Forest Service offices around the country.
When she isn’t running the finances of big wildfires, Mrs. Fork works for the U.S. Forest Service managing timber contracts. In the past 25 years, she estimates, she has helped manage the finances of 100 fires. She has taken some finance courses along the way, but mostly, she said, she has “learned on the job.”
Mrs. Fork said her grandson is old enough to understand that his grandmother works on fires, but not quite old enough to grasp exactly what she does. When she recently tried to explain it to him on the phone, she heard him yell, “Mommy, Nana’s at a fire!”