Cal Fire's Robbers Fire bill rises to $11.9 million

Auburn-area businesses win, lose in eight-day fight to stop wildfire between Colfax, Foresthill
By: Gus Thomson, Journal Staff Writer
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AUBURN CA - The bill to fight the Robbers Fire between Colfax and Foresthill was moving toward $12 million as Cal Fire ramped down operations Thursday. With a fire footprint bottled up for two days at 2,650 acres, Cal Fire was continuing to be a presence in the Auburn area and spending money to keep firefighters on the job to prevent any flare-ups in densely wooded canyon east of Auburn. For Dawson Oil co-owner Steve Dawson, the task of fueling a fleet of vehicles that included more than 100 fire engines, two dozen bulldozers and 30 water tenders was an all-consuming mission since being called on soon after the fire started. A local, family owned fuel supplier based in Rocklin, Dawson Oil has card-locks in Auburn and has been providing fuel in firefighting efforts in the area since its beginnings as a business in the early 1980s. Dawson also saw the fire from another perspective, besides as a business owner. He?s a volunteer firefighter with the Ophir Hills district. ?I was put on one of the strike teams for a couple of days and it gets your heart rate up,? Dawson said. ?I was stationed at the base camp and poised for structure protection.? Dawson Oil had three fuel tenders working the Robbers Fire at its peak and was down to one by Thursday, at the Gold Country Fairgrounds. One of the tanker trucks was driven into a remote area past Iowa Hill to provide fuel for vehicles on the north end of the blaze. The other two were at the fairgrounds, sometimes pumping out gasoline to a line of vehicles stretched 15 deep. Dawson said the work to aid the firefighting effort provided a bump in sales but also challenged the business?s abilities in the face of an emergency to save property and lives. In all, Dawson Oil probably pumped 20,000 to 25,000 gallons of fuel through Thursday, Dawson said. Through at least Saturday, it will still have a single tanker at the fairgrounds, where Cal Fire has established its Robbers Fire staging area since July 12. The fire broke out July 11. ?It?s an additional revenue stream but the important thing is we?re helping the cause,? Dawson said. ?We?re glad to do our part.? Pizza ? specifically Old Town Pizza?s in Auburn ? turned out to be another important fuel for firefighters. The Old Town eatery was one of the first of several businesses to donate food. Ethan O?Hagan, Old Town Pizza general manager, said he found that firefighters were frequenting his establishment on a regular basis after that. With smoke in the air, the fire crews provided a boost to business during what was turning out to be a slow time, O?Hagan said. ?We had a ton of firefighters,? O?Hagan said. ?It was a lot of pepperoni and cheese ? good comfort food.? And on Friday, O?Hagan will be filling an unexpected but welcome order ? 40 ?extra larges? to be delivered to the fairgrounds for remaining firefighters. ?That?s a good chunk of business, especially for lunch,? O?Hagan said. O?Hagan said the pizzeria appreciates the business ? but with mixed feelings. ?We?d rather see them get home to their families and have no reason to be around this area,? O?Hagan said. While the fire was still sprouting hot spots that needed constant vigilance by the shrinking firefighting force, Fast Fridays owner David Joiner was looking forward to a return to the fairgrounds. The influx of firefighters sleeping, showering, parking and resting at the fairgrounds coincided with last Friday?s motorcycle races in the evening and the event was forced to be cancelled. Joiner said he lost a gate of about $20,000 from the cancelation and was glad to have Cal Fire revamp its temporary base camp to allow this Friday?s North vs. South races ? expected to attract 3,000 ? to go ahead. ?If I wasn?t able to have this, it would a real crimp in our style,? Joiner said. And the Bureau of Land Management, which is the major land owner in the Robbers Fire area, was already into the fire zone with a team of biologists and soils experts to plan how to prevent denuded slopes from eroding and soils flowing into rivers. David Christy, information officer for the bureau?s Mother Lode field office, said Thursday that plans would typically include seeding areas to ensure some growth before winter rains. Straw could also be spread and water bars ? artificial ridges and terracing ? could be carved out with hand tools and dozers. Funding that work is ?complicated,? he said. ?Some money in the bureau budget is available for post-fire rehabilitation but it can put a strain on existing operations,? Christy said. Cal Fire public information officer Daniel Berlant said that the state does have a $92 million emergency fund set aside this year to cover large-scale wildfires. ?Any local government agency that helps, we?ll reimburse,? Berlant said. ?And depending on the amount of activity in a year, Cal Fire has the ability to go back to the Legislature and ask for more.? The $11.9-million figure now being quoted for the Robbers Fire covers suppression costs exclusively. A separate tally will be made on the cost for damage from the blaze. A fire can result in tremendous hardships for a community in terms of property losses and a drop in visitor dollars. But in the case of the Robbers Fire, losses to structures were held to one residence and four outbuildings. There was no loss of life. ?It has had a good impact on some local vendors, including hotels, food suppliers and fuel providers,? Berlant said. ?In this case, it was a small, positive glimmer.?