Who's footing the $900,000 bill for the Five Mile Swamp Fire and Hurst Hammock Fire?
The total cost so far for the response to Santa Rosa County's Five Mile Swamp Fire and Escambia County's Hurst Hammock Fire totals nearly $900,000 — a cost that will be split between the state, the federal government and the individual counties.
As of Wednesday, the costs for fighting the Five Mile Swamp Fire were $652,461, and the costs for the Hurst Hammock Fire were $246,115, according to the Florida Forest Service. The costs include personnel, equipment, fuel, lodging and meals.
The $898,576 total does not include the $1.9 million in property damage estimated by the county last week.
District 4 Santa Rosa County Commissioner Dave Piech asked at Thursday morning’s commission meeting about who is responsible for paying the bill.
“I know when we did things with the federal government, there was reimbursement and mutual aid agreements and things like that,” Piech said. “But is there any potential for the people who started the fire to be responsible for the entire bill? Are we responsible for the entire bill?”
While the state of Florida is on the hook initially for the full cost of the response, a federal grant announced last week from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Federal Emergency Management Agency will reimburse the state for 75% of the costs for fighting Santa Rosa County's fire.
The state of Florida will pay 12.5% of the remaining 25%, and Santa Rosa County will ultimately be responsible for the other 12.5% of the bill. The county is budgeting between $30,000 to $40,000 for its share, according to county spokeswoman Brandi Bates. The exact number for which the county will be responsible hasn't yet been fully calculated.
The Hurst Hammock Fire is separate from the Five Mile Swamp Fire and is being funded by the Blackwater Forestry Center budget, according to forest service spokesman Joe Zwierzchowski. Escambia County spokeswoman Laura Coale told the News Journal in an email that the county did not spend any money on the fire other than manpower, which did not include overtime.
"We will not seek reimbursement because we have not done anything outside a normal response," Coale said.
Santa Rosa County's Emergency Management Director Brad Baker said the person who started the Five Mile Swamp Fire could ultimately pay the full damages, but that process will be long and drawn out.
“In broad terms, you are responsible for any damage that the fire you set does to any property, including the firefighting efforts,” Baker told commissioners on Thursday. “Obviously there will be a long, drawn-out litigation for whatever amount that is.”
The Five Mile Swamp Fire began May 4 on the Pensacola Bay Mitigation Bank, a privately owned and operated compensatory mitigation wetland owned by the Westervelt Co., based in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. The company was issued a burn permit to perform a prescribed burn on the property and hired a contractor to perform the prescribed burn, but has declined to say who the contractor was.
The Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services denied the News Journal's request for a copy of the original burn authorization permit last week, citing the associated documents as "active criminal investigative information" exempt from public record.
The Hurst Hammock Fire was human-caused, but investigators have not yet determined how exactly the fire began. They do not suspect arson.
Santa Rosa County Attorney Roy Andrews said state statute prevents the Florida Forest Service from being liable for any damage caused by a permitted controlled burn that gets out of control, unless there's gross negligence involved.
“If you go through the burn authorization process, that limits the liability of the landowner and the contractor. Specifically, (the statute) goes on to state that the Florida Forest Service is not liable for burns for which it issues authorization,” Andrews said. “The Legislature has declared that prescribed burning is a benefit to the state.”
Baker said Thursday that "most" of the homes that were destroyed or damaged had homeowner's insurance. Donations to the victims can currently be made via the county's SAFER Santa Rosa program.
The Hurst Hammock Fire was 97% contained at 2,215 acres, and the Hurst Hammock Fire was 98% contained at 1,191 acres, as of Thursday morning.