Agency: Marines Still Owe $10 Million For Sierra Fire

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A $10 million bill sent to the Marine Corps to cover the costs of fighting a 22,750-acre Sierra Nevada wildlife two years ago remains unpaid, the U.S. Forest Service confirmed Thursday.

"The Forest Service is still trying to collect $10 million from the Marines," Reno-based agency spokeswoman Christy Kalkowski said.

Lt. Nathan Braden, of the Marines' public affairs staff at Camp Pendleton, Calif., that handles media queries about the Pickel Meadows mountain warfare training base, said he wasn't aware of the bill for the fire.

"We'll have to do some research on it," said Braden, who was recently assigned to Camp Pendleton. "This is the first I've heard of it."

The 2002 fire broke out near Pickel Meadows where trainees had set dozens of practice campfires. Four days after the wildfire began, three air tanker crew members died when the wings of their C-130A snapped off. The plane crashed in Walker, Calif., near the Nevada border in the Sierra Nevada.

After sending the $10 million bill in January 2003, the Forest Service said negotiations had started with the Marines Corps over the costs for fighting the fire and rehabilitating the land.

Negotiators focused on agreements between the Marines and the Forest Service, which were drawn up because the Marines' Pickel Meadows base is in the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest.

The Forest Service said the agreements require the Defense Department to pay for any costs directly attributable to military training in the area - subject to available funds.

The 2002 fire scorched an area about 20 miles south of a 940-acre blaze that broke out Monday and threatened a Marine Corps housing compound near the Pickel Meadows base.

The latest fire started when four youths lit a cooking fire and embers blew into nearby brush. The Mono County district attorney's office is determining whether charges should be filed - and another bill for firefighting efforts could be sent out.

Bill Dunkelberger, manager of the Bureau of Land Management office in Bishop, Calif., said the Marine housing is on BLM land and the federal agency will follow a review process to determine whether reimbursement should be sought.

Children of Marines were involved in the latest fire, and any bill would go to their parents rather than to the Marine Corps, officials said.