NORTH FORT MYERS, Fla. - The number of brush fires in Southwest Florida has nearly doubled from last year, and the busy season isn't over yet.
Budget cuts left many fire districts expecting to do more with less this year. Now it's not just taxpayer dollars that can help the bottom line of the brush fire battle; more agencies are making the firestarters pay the price.
"Its challenging, but I think we're meeting the challenge," said Bayshore Fire Chief Larry Nisbet.
Nisbet planned for a moderate brush fire season, and his taxpayer-funded budget is enough to pay for their brush fire response.
Just in case, his district board recently approved another tool to pay for firefighting.
"We would send them a bill associated with the costs of suppression," Nisbet said.
People found responsible for starting a wildfire in the Bayshore District can now get billed for the costs of fighting it. Its something the state division of forestry has been able to do for awhile.
"If you have six bulldozers that go out there to put a fire out, like we did on a wildfire awhile back, that can cost several thousand dollars," said Division of Forestry spokesman Victor Hill.
Investigators can often determine if a brush fire is natural or human-caused.
"The challenge is figuring out exactly who it was," Hill said.
Bayshore Fire District has not billed anyone in the few weeks they've had the authority. Chief Nisbet says it's not meant to turn the fire department into a pay-as-you-go service.
"That wasn't our intent, to start handing out bills every time we go out to an illegal burn or brush fire," Nisbet said. "Its where we have costs or issues or repeated issues with an individual that the suppression costs become costly to the district and become costly to other taxpayers."
If the Division of Forestry does find a person or persons responsible for starting a brush fire, the fines start at $150. Any other responding agencies that have authoritized suppression billing can piggyback on the Division of Forestry and bill the costs of their services.