Idaho lags far behind its neighboring states in recovering payment for putting out forest fires started by people through negligence or illegal burning.

In 1988, Idaho recovered $8,122 for fires on its state lands. The same year, Oregon recouped $1.29 million; California $937,852; Washington $866,584; and Montana $90,524, according to forestry agencies in each state, the Moscow Idahonian reported.Last year, while Idaho collected $3,853, Washington recovered $1.08 million; California $889,469; Oregon $790,000; and Montana $3,967.

The other states and U.S. Forest Service use small claims court, liens, private collection agencies, promissory notes, criminal courts and payroll deductions to recover suppression costs.

Idaho employs none of those methods, said Winston Wiggins, assistant forestry director with the state Department of Lands.

"This particular item (recovering money) has not received the attention we'd like to give it," Wiggins said.

"My perception is that it hasn't been an administrative priority," added Steven Schuster, a deputy attorney general assigned to the Lands Department to handle fire-bill cases.

Consequently, while other states are tracking down reluctant debtors, Idaho bills on those who started the forest fires largely go unpaid.

For instance, in 1988 Oregon collected 74.7 percent of the amount of fire suppression bills it sent out; Montana collected 69.7 percent. The same year, Idaho pulled in 3.3 percent of what it billed. Last year, Idaho brought in 28.5 percent, Oregon, 81.7 percent and Washington about half.

"What I can say for sure is there were some that weren't collected," Wiggins said. "What I can't say is why.

"Maybe they fell through the cracks," he added. "If there is a crack they've fallen through, it probably is between the field and Boise."

Wiggins and some fire wardens in the state's 10 lands districts said part of the problem is a shortage of attorneys to take over cases when debtors ignore bills sent by wardens.

Yet there is confusion about where the documents on these fires end up.

For instance, John Preston, a fire management analyst for the agency in Coeur d'Alene, said uncollected bills are sent to attorney Schuster for legal action.

But Schuster said, "I've only been involved in a very few. There's many, many more that I don't see."

And though civil court trials over the unpaid fire bills in the other states are rare, one or two a year, no one can remember when Idaho has last gone to trial to collect a bill.

How many bills and how much money has gone uncollected in Idaho over the years?

Wiggins said earlier this year he instructed all 10 districts to search their files and send him all unpaid bills. The information now is arriving in Boise and has yet to be fully analyzed.

It is known that in 1989, 13 of 29 bills 44.7 percent worth nearly $9,000 are uncollected.

Beyond failing to recoup taxpayers' funds for extinguishing fires, something else may be lost in Idaho with the uncollected bills: deterrence.

In the other states, officials point to a reduction in man-caused fires. In Washington, negligence accounted for 25 percent of all forest fires before 1985, said Bill Steele, the Department of Natural Resources' chief fire investigator. Today, the figure is 10 percent.

"The word's getting out about the cost-collection program for those areas where negligence can be shown," said Dave LeMay, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention's law enforcement chief. "People are really focusing in on, `Do I really want to light this match?' "

Commonly, logging companies, utilities and railroads are billed for fires their operations start.

Farmers whose stubble-burning roars out of control, property owners caught flat-footed when their debris fires leap their bounds, weekenders whose idyllic campfires become infernos all are likely to be billed for suppression costs.

Even the well-intentioned are liable. Last year the Forest Service recovered $132,700 from a camper who read that the most ecologically-sound way to dispose of used toilet paper is by burning. His fire spread to 450 acres of the Wenatchee National Forest in Washington.

The states' forest fire costs are considerable. Washington spent a record $19.5 million in arid 1988, Idaho $1.1 million in 1989.

Not all fires are reimbursable. the perimeter with hoses only to have unexpected winds carry burning debris is not likely to be billed.

"The guy who goes out there and throws a match or a cigarette and then leaves, that's the one who we believe is negligent," said Bob McNight, a state fire control supervisor in Orofino.