Spokane Fire Department Far Exceeds Budget To Cover Wildfires

Dec 6, 2018

The Spokane Fire Department is asking the city council to expand the agency's budget to cover 2018 wildfire suppression costs.
Credit City of Spokane

The Spokane Fire Department is an agency that works mostly in city settings, but more and more, it’s responding to fires at the edges of the urban area. This year, it went well beyond what it had budgeted for wild land firefighting. On Monday, it will ask the city council to extend its budget to cover those extra costs.

Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer says his department budgeted $200,000 this year to cover overtime and the other expenses related to fighting wildfires. As the year heads into its final few weeks, the agency has gone about $431,000 over budget.

Some of that is fighting brush and other outdoor fires within the city. But agencies in other jurisdictions call too. Last year, Schaeffer’s department responded to 14 wildfires; this year, it went to 25.

“Yeah, we did have a few units in California. We had multiple requests. There was just a point, actually, where we just had to say no," he said.

Schaeffer’s firefighters responded to fires in eastern and central Washington, Oregon, even as far as northern California.

During his 14 years in Spokane, Schaeffer says the wildfire season has expanded from three months in the summer to almost six months, mid-spring to mid-fall.

“These aren’t just wild land fires, these are what I would call ‘project fires.’ Several hundred firefighters, oftentimes tens of thousands of acres, high complexity and, most often, those are theater-sized, meaning, they’re managed by an incident management team. So they’re pretty significant events,” he said.

Even though Schaeffer’s department is well over budget and he projects that trend to continue, he doesn’t think he’ll ask the city to boost his wild land firefighting budget. That’s because most of the overages will be reimbursed by other fire agencies who call his department asking for help.
 

The Spokane Fire Department says it has spent $431,000 more than it budgeted for wildfire-related costs this year. That’s significant when you consider the department initially budgeted only $200,000 to cover overtime and other expenses related to wildfires.

Chief Brian Schaeffer says most of the overages will be reimbursed by other fire agencies. But the department will ask the city council on Monday for a special ordinance to cover those costs until the checks arrive.

Last year, Schaeffer’s department responded to 14 wildland fires; this year it went to 28.

“Every year, during fire season, we hear that this is a 100-year event or we’ll never see this again. Yet, every year it continues to get worse,” he said.

This year, Schaeffer’s firefighters responded to fires in eastern and central Washington, Oregon, even as far as Mendocino in northern California. He says he had to turn down outside requests for service.

During his time here, Schaeffer says the wildfire season has expanded from three months in the summer to almost six months, mid-spring to mid-fall. And the fires are becoming bigger and more dangerous to fight.

“There’s a number of factors to that," he said. "Our forests have a higher level or higher number of bug kill. The temperature is undisputedly hotter and it’s continuing to get warmer. And we’re seeing people plant houses and occupy areas that we’ve never seen before.”

Despite the trend, Schaeffer says he doesn’t expect to increase his budget for wildland firefighting because most of his agency’s costs are covered.