Taylor residents applaud firefighting efforts

Published: Friday, June 1, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, June 1, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

TAYLOR - Federal and state officials showed up at Thursday night's community meeting armed with explanations about how the Bugaboo fire started, why it grew rapidly to consume 125,000 acres in Baker and Columbia counties and why some property was damaged by fire crews.

In return, Taylor area residents offered applause and appreciation for every effort to save their homes.

The Bugaboo began as the result of a lightning strike in the Okeefenokee Swamp in south Georgia in early May. It swept into Florida within a few days and was hastened along by windy conditions over two weeks. Nearly 400 federal, state and local firefighters are still battling the blaze, which was 90 percent contained on Thursday evening. No homes were lost or damaged, although some hunting camps were destroyed by the Bugaboo.

"If it hadn't been for the fire lines, we would have lost our house twice," said Ethel Dowling, a Baker County eighth-grade reading teacher whose family was evacuated from their home outside Taylor for three nights during the height of the fire.

Many of the two dozen or so area residents at the meeting had their own property or knew of a relative's or neighbor's property that was damaged as crews plowed fire lines that sometimes meant gates were crashed through or water lines cut in the rush to contain the wildfire.

"It's not over yet," said Florida Division of Forestry biologist Andy Van Loan.

She said the Bugaboo is now reburning. Needles from dead trees have begun to fall, providing new fuel for the fire. Van Loan said that while crews are still in the area mopping up and watching for hot spots, some restoration of damaged property could be done.

"We don't usually do that, but this case is an exception," Van Loan said.

Following Thursday night's meeting, property owners were encouraged to speak to officials one-on-one to see whether any damage to their property by fire crews could be restored.

While the efforts continue to control and extinguish the Bugaboo, the costs continue to mount for government agencies at every level.

Diane Taylor, a finance section chief for the unified federal and state command overseeing the Bugaboo efforts, said the per day cost ranged between $220,000 and $250,000.

"That includes the wages - regular and overtime - for the federal and state employees," Taylor said. The $30,000 cost range was the result of varying amounts of aircraft used on the Bugaboo.

"It's more expensive on days when we can use aircraft, but sometimes the aircraft can't fly because of wind or smoke or whatever," Taylor said.

When the fire is over, the costs will be split 50-50 between the state and federal government, and 75 percent of the state costs are expected to be eligible for reimbursement by the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Taylor said.

"Those kinds of settlements happen once the emergency is over," Taylor said. "It's our job to keep good records so that FEMA can see how the money was spent."

In Bradford County, commissioners recently agreed to pay volunteer firefighters $12 an hour for their work on a 15,000-acre wildfire in early May. The number of volunteer hours has not been totaled, officials said, because volunteers are continuing to respond to flare-ups almost daily. County Manager Jim Crawford is in the process of requesting an advance on the federal money the county is expected to receive through FEMA as a reimbursement for the county's fire emergency related expenses.

Columbia County finance officials said the county spent at least $7,743 in out-of-pocket, Bugaboo-related expenses in May, not including fire-specific overtime.

"Right now the county is handling this internally and hopes to be reimbursed substantially by FEMA," said county spokesman Harvey Campbell.

Karen Voyles can be reached at 352-486-5058 or voylesk@gvillesun.com.

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