The state Department of Natural Resources mistakenly overpaid a private contractor to help fight last year’s Carlton Complex fire in North-Central Washington, according to a state accountability audit released Thursday.
While the amount the state overpaid — about $9,000 — was subsequently repaid by the private contractor, the audit finding highlights the pressure on the state’s largest wildland firefighting agency to respond quickly to fires while also ensuring that all proper procedures are followed.
Following last year’s unprecedented fire season, some lawmakers and local officials from the east side of the state criticized the Department of Natural Resources for being slow and inefficient to enlist the help of civilian and private firefighting crews during the fierce blazes.
But state auditors said in their report Thursday that DNR acted so quickly in one instance that it failed to establish reimbursement rates for a private contractor in advance and in writing, as the department’s policies require.
“Due to the imminent threat to public safety, the department entered into this emergency agreement without establishing these rates,” according to the report from the Washington State Auditor’s Office.
“Without establishing agreed-upon rates in contracts for fire suppression services, public funds are at risk of misuse or abuse,” the audit says.
The mistake resulted in DNR overpaying the private contractor for equipment such as radios, chain saws and flashlights, which the department normally wouldn’t reimburse.
The contractor, who the state paid a total of $1.8 million to help fight the Carlton Complex fire last year, paid the $9,000 back quickly after the state realized its mistake, said DNR spokeswoman Sandra Kaiser.
Kaiser said DNR frequently contracts with private companies or property owners to help contain dangerous fires. All of the private firefighters the state contracts with are trained in firefighting techniques and have proper safety equipment, she said.
Kaiser said the emergency contract cited in Thursday’s audit was signed “in pretty much dire circumstances” last year.
Prior to the 2015 fire season, the 2014 fire season was the worst in Washington state history, burning more than 400,000 acres throughout the state. More than half of those acres burned in the Carlton Complex fire.
“It was the right thing to do … we needed to act and we did,” Kaiser said. “That said, we do really need to make sure that our contracts are correct and contain the proper amount of reimbursements.
“In that particular case we did not live up to our own standards.”
This year’s fire season has already proved much worse than last year’s, and some fires are still burning throughout the state, Kaiser said.
So far, more than 1 million acres have burned across Washington this year, more than twice the damage caused by fires in 2014.