Question of financial responsibility for fires is simple - sort of

Ever wonder who pays for wildfire? Who pays firefighters? Who pays for clean up? Who pays for preventative measures such as forest thinning and maintaining defensible space?

The simple answer to these questions is, whoever owns the property. If a private person's barbecue gets out of control and their home is destroyed - they are financially responsible. If a lightning strike causes a blaze on Bureau of Land Management property and land they manage burns - the federal agency must foot the bill. A state agency such as the Nevada Division of Forestry will usually pay for fires on state lands.

Unfortunately, the simple answer doesn't usually cut it, explains Carson City Assistant Fire Chief and Fire Marshal Stacey Giomi.

"It's a very complicated question."

Fire, it seems, pays little regard to property lines. Therefore, agencies must work together. A federal agency will help fight fire on private land if their land is threatened, for example. Say a private person's 5-acre plot is burning toward a large swath of BLM land - they'll pay for crews to help stop the blaze.

Cooperation between agencies (the Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Division of Forestry or the Carson City Fire Department, for example) hinges on a thing called the "mutual aid agreement." Each pair of agencies has a different agreement, but generally it works like this: Both agencies agree to help fight fires on each other's land for short periods of time, usually about 12 hours.

If a fire is burning on federal land and city crews are sent in to help, the federal agency will reimburse the city - but only after the "mutual aid agreement" requirements have been exhausted. So the city will pay its crews to fight a fire on BLM land for up to 12 hours. After that, they will be paid by the federal agency.

Similar agreements exist between all area fire departments and state and federal agencies.

As for forest thinning, or what firefighters call "fuel management," federal agencies like the Forest Service and BLM have plans and budgets in place. After the destructive fires in Southern California last year, for example, the federal government has made funding available to help pay for preventative fuel-management procedures.

Carson City is currently managing about $450,000 in federal grants distributed through the Nevada Division of Forestry.

"What we're actively doing right now, is we're taking subdivisions that interface with wild land areas, like Lakeview, Kings Canyon, Timberline, Clear Creek etc., and we'll put a fire break around the entire subdivision," Giomi said.

Then they'll look at individual forested properties which owners have not thinned.

"We'll reduce fuel loading by 30 to 50 percent, so that instead of the fire just barreling through an area it might give us a chance - with air tankers and ground crews - to go in there a make a stand."

On private lands with homes, the onus is on the property owner, Giomi said.

"Local governments typically don't invest their own money on defensible space."

Carson City has an ordinance requiring property owners to keep brush and flammable materials cleared away from structures.

"That only applies to property that has a home on it," Giomi said.

Of course, the question of financial responsibility for a fire shouldn't come up until after it's extinguished, Giomi said.

"If your house catches fire, we're going to come to your house and try to put out the fire - that's our job," he said. "We can't be saying, 'We're not going to commit our resources because because we're not sure we're going to get paid.'"

Contact Karl Horeis at or 881-1219.


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