Fine-tune fire protection costs

Fine-tunefire protection costs

7 February 2007

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USA — Forest homeowners are a big part of the risk of wildfire, and costsshould be shared accordingly.

All Montanans share a stake in wildfire protection. A bill progressing in theLegislature would more equitably and usefully share some of the costs of thatprotection.

House Bill 61, sponsored by Missoula Democrat RonErickson, proposes to give homeowners in forested settings and owners of smallforest acreages a little more responsibility for fire protections services thatare – and would continue to be – mostly paid for through taxes paid by allMontanans.

The state already collects a nominal fee from forest landowners to help pay forso-called “pre-suppression” fire protection measures. Current law caps thatfee at $30 per landowner in fire protection districts, with an additional

20 cents an acre for every acre over 20. This has the effect of collecting themost from the largest landowners, not necessarily the largest risks or thosewith the most to lose from fire and gain from protection.

HB61 would increase the cap to $45 per landowner with an additional 25 cents peracre over 20 acres. The actual amount assessed could be less. The bill says thetotal amount collected from landowners can’t exceed one-third the fireprotection appropriation from the Legislature. For this year, that total amountis

$2.7 million. This “pre-suppression” appropriation, by the way, is dwarfedby the actual amount the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation spendsfighting fires each year –

$59 million last year, for example.

The bill’s fee formula also tweaks the actual assessments to ensure that themore numerous owners of 20 acres and less pay 60 percent of theprivate-landowner assessments, while owners of larger tracts pay 40 percent ofthose assessments in aggregate. That roughly reverses the current balance ofpayments.

The end result is this: Taxpayers in general foot two-thirds of the cost,private landowners one-third; of the share paid by private landowners,

60 percent would be paid by owners of parcels of 20 acres or less.

This apportioning of the costs makes a good deal of sense when you consider theexponential increase in fire danger, fire-protection expense and potentiallosses posed by homes built in forested settings, relative to large, undevelopedblocks of land.

Some of us might argue for a more insurance-oriented approach: that is, to havethe actual costs spread on a risk basis to the landowners who benefit directlyfrom the protection. That’s what those of us living in cities and towns do forfire protection. But it’s a fair argument to say that the state and its peopleshare in the benefits of effective fire protection. We don’t begrudge thisexpense. But even as the general taxpayer continues to shoulder most of theburden, even if we’re not going to ask landowners to pay their full fair share,it’s entirely appropriate to ask owners of the proliferating homes in theso-called “wildland-urban interface” to contribute a more appropriate share.

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