South Dakota Department Billed For Blaze

The costs have been calculated for an April fire that burned up to 1,500 acres near Tacoma Park and took six Brown County fire departments about a day and a half to extinguish.

Responding fire departments billed between $600 and $7,000. All of these bills were sent to the Columbia Community Fire Department because the fire originated in its response area.

According to state Sen. Paul Dennert, D-Columbia, who serves as chairman/treasurer for the Columbia fire department, the total cost for battling the blaze was $21,536.

The Columbia department is responsible for that amount, which includes more than $3,300 from the state.

The fire took a toll on the department's budget and raised concerns over how responders are compensated for such incidents.

"I think this fire in April has brought to the surface a problem that needs addressing," Dennert said.

The legal controlled burn was started by Jarrett Jones on land owned by his family's farm south of Tacoma Park. It quickly got out of hand in 25 mph winds.

St. Luke's Hospital's Careflight helicopter, Brown County Sheriff's and Emergency Management offices, the state Highway Patrol, Department of Corrections and Salvation Army also responded to the emergency.

Repayment: The Jones' were insured with State Farm Insurance and the policy allows only $500 for all the responding volunteer fire departments.

"I've got the same insurance," Dennert said. He said State Farm will settle with owners of other property damaged, such as pay for the loss of structures and utilities.

No one was hurt and no structures damaged in the April fire.

The Jones family made a donation to the Columbia Fire Department to help defray the fire's cost. The department then distributed the donation and the $500 insurance payment to the responding fire units; Columbia is not saying how much the Jones' donated.

When divided between the seven fire departments, the payments amounted to less than $300 each, Dennert said.

Volunteer fire departments sometimes have to pay the total cost of fighting fires, he said, and all of the departments - including Columbia - just absorbed the additional costs.

Corrections' costs: Unfortunately the state Department of Corrections is not so forgiving.

The Redfield Trusty Unit sent 25 inmates to help "clean up" the fire, Dennert said.

They cut down a lot of larger trees that the fire department didn't have the equipment or the knowledge to do, said Scott Meints, fire chief of the Columbia Community Volunteer Fire Department.

The hourly wage for an inmate is 25 cents and the inmates worked 10 hours, for a total cost of $62.50.

However, the mileage costs and wages for security personnel who accompany the inmates must also be paid.

Besides the Redfield crew, the corrections department sent an inmate crew in from Yankton and Springfield, Meints said, but that crew arrived too late and never made it to the site of the blaze.

None of the Springfield/Yankton inmates were paid, but security personnel with the crew charged over $1,100 in wages, Dennert said. The Redfield security personnel charged $832 for chaperoning the inmates.

Besides the approximately $2,000 in wages, the corrections department charged the Columbia Fire Department $1,080 for mileage and $118 for meals and $100 for equipment used and repairs.

Bottom line burned: The total costs incurred by the Columbia Fire Department itself in battling the blaze was about $1,900. It, too, received less than $300.

Unlike other departments, Columbia was also responsible for the total cost for the Department of Corrections.

"We've got an unpaid cost of about $1,600, and we're out over $3,000 to the DOC," Dennert said.

For the Columbia Fire Department, which has an annual budget of between $12,000 and $15,000, that amounts to a considerable percentage, Dennert said.

"When we have to write a check for $3,000, that has an effect on our bottom line," he said.

"Really, this can't continue. We can't send out $100,000 fire trucks and spend 24 hours (fighting a fire) and get 300 bucks."

He recommends that all parties who stand to lose from fires - the insurance companies, policy owners and firefighters - sit down and try to work out a solution that will benefit all.

If necessary, legislative action could be taken, but Dennert said this would be a last resort.