Oregon wildfire-fighting expenses reach 'historic territory'

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MEDFORD, Ore. (AP) -- The Oregon Department of Forestry has spent more than $70 million fighting major wildfires so far this summer, far more than it generally spends to handle conflagrations on state-protected lands.

The two largest wildfires in southern Oregon -- the Big Windy and Douglas Complex fires -- have cost nearly $60 million of that.

"It's definitely looking into historic territory," said the department's Dan Postrel.

If flames threaten structures, the Federal Emergency Management Agency can reimburse the state for up to 75 percent of eligible costs during that time.

"It's going to be months, perhaps even a year, before everything from the costs and reimbursements settle out," Postrel said.

The agency generally spends less than $10 million in a wildfire season. But the summer of 2002, which included the massive Biscuit Fire, ended up costing the state about $50 million.

Expenses can ring up quickly, with a 20-person private contract crew costing the department $12,800 a day, agency spokesman Brad Nichols said -- $40 per hour per crew member working 16-hour days.

The major wildfires this season have been started by lightning. Had they been human-caused, the department could seek expenses from those responsible.