USA — When a devastating series of wind-driven wildfiresripped last fall through Southern California, manpower ran short and equipmenteven shorter.
In the end, more than 2,000 homes were destroyed. And the vast acres ofblackened ruins drew the spotlight to an overextended state firefighting systemthat needs emergency help of its own, especially as a growing number of homesare built in fire-prone areas.
Faced with a $14.5 billion state deficit, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger hasproposed a surcharge on property insurance bills across-the-board to pay formore resources.
But the plan raises questions over who should pay to fight wildfires – theMalibu homeowner who eagerly rebuilds on a piece of scorched paradise or thegeneral population, which doesn’t necessarily have the luxury of a forestedbackyard and an ocean view.
“I don’t think it’s reasonable for the people who live in urban areas tohave to fund the additional money for the people who live in those areas,”said Garth Carlson, a member of the Reseda Neighborhood Council, expressing hispersonal view.
“You’re taking a risk living in the mountains around Malibu. Should Ipay for that?”
In his State of the State address last month, Schwarzenegger proposed a 1.25percent tax on property insurance bills – about $10 to $12 per Californiahomeowner – that would generate about $125 million a year for the stateDepartment of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“It amounts to less than a dollar a month,”said Aaron McLear, the governor’s press secretary.
“The point is, when there’s a fire and the state responds, all taxpayerspay for that. Taxpayers would pay less, no matter where you live, if there aremore resources and consequently less damage.”
The fee would provide the state agency, better known as Cal Fire, with 121new engines, 11 more helicopters and a collection of global positioning systemsto track fires and better coordinate resource assignments and evacuations.
During fire season, the new revenue would pay to increase from three to fourthe number of state firefighters per engine.
Year-round “surge” engines would be placed at municipal departmentsstatewide, where local agencies would maintain them, use them for backup andagree to man them for mutual aid when catastrophe hits.
“It would offer more protection with additional personnel and moreequipment,” Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. “We would bebetter able to respond to emergencies quickly.
“If there’s a fire and we have a quick response, we keep it smaller. Wedon’t have a massive wildfire.”
Cal Fire has jurisdiction over 31million acres of wilderness, and contractswith 150 local governments, primarily smaller, rural cities and counties. Thedepartment also backs up municipal fire systems statewide, not only to fightbrush fires, but in earthquakes, floods, mudslides and other emergencies,Berlant said.
Who should pay?
Former Los Angeles Councilwoman Ruth Gallanter said urban residents have beensubsidizing hillside residents for decades for public services from fireprotection to sewage systems.
The problem now is that once-remote hillside homes are now within tracts of300 houses, all in the natural path of a brush fire.
“The problem with subsidizing services for outlying hillside areas -building in flood plains is the same issue – the problem with doing that is thatit makes it easier to develop in those areas, which are the most expensive toserve,” she said.
The solution is to stop building in fire-prone areas, but that doesn’t helpthe existing situation, Gallanter said.
“In order to craft a really fair solution, there has to be a fair way toapportion the cost somehow in proportion to the risk,” Gallanter said.
“But it’s not clear who should pick up the payment for extra risk.Should it be the homeowner who might have lived there for years and maybe not beas wealthy as some neighbors – or the local government who allowed the risk?”
Insurance company executives were briefed on the idea in early January, butthe industry has yet to take a stand, said Greg Sherlock, a spokesman for StateFarm Insurance, the largest property insurer in the state.
But county Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman is intrigued by governor’s proposaland thinks it deserves serious consideration.
“Is this approach without flaws? Is there a better way to do it, totweak it?” Freeman said. “We need to dialogue. How will it be used?Who pays for it? Who doesn’t? Those are the questions we have to talk about, toanswer.”
Charlotte Laws is on the Valley Glen Neighborhood Council. She said shehasn’t studied the governor’s proposal but would tend to favor a nominal fee tohelp ensure the state is better prepared for disaster.
“Nobody likes taxes to be raised, but it’s possible that the additionalmoney would help us be better prepared,” Laws said.
“We do have residents living in areas that are high fire danger. And weall pay for things we don’t use. We all pay for public schools even if we don’thave kids. You can make that argument all day long.”
Last fall was marked by at least a dozen major brush fires from Lake Tahoe toSan Diego, with five devastating blazes in Malibu and the Santa Clarita Valley.
Flames from October’s 58,401-acre Ranch Fire came up to Scott Muir’s home inCastaic’s Hasley Canyon. Having grown up in Malibu, he knew the drill and hesaved his house.
Per county requirement, he had cleared brush around his property and when hiscanyon was evacuated he stayed behind with a friend, equipped with a pool pumpand hose to douse any flames.
He said he opposes a statewide fire fee but wouldn’t mind the surcharge ifthe money went to local fire departments.
“I wouldn’t mind an extra $12 on my policy, but every time thegovernment starts a new tax, they end up spending it on something else,” hesaid.
“I think the local fire departments would manage it better.”
Muir and others don’t question the fairness so much of urban areassubsidizing fire-prone areas as they do Los Angeles County residents helpingother less-prepared regions.
Los Angeles County, he said, proved superior compared to Orange and San Diegocounties in the most recent spate of fires, primarily because of diligent brushclearance enforcement.
“I do live in a high fire zone, and the fire came to my front door,”he said. “But I clear my property every year – if you don’t, the countywill do it for you and charge you two or three thousand dollars.
“You didn’t see that in San Diego where they lost all those homes.”
And Gallanter adds that Los Angeles area residents have taxed themselves inboth the city and county to enhance fire protection while some neighboringcounties have not.
The state alone spent $291 million of the total $1 billion cost of battlingflames last fall. Manpower was stretched and resources were thin, with enginesand aircraft shifted from fire to fire as erratic winds spread flames throughneighborhoods.
“That particular day I felt the whole world was on fire,” Freemansaid of Oct. 21, the start of the first autumn firestorm.
Legislature will decide
The fee is within the governor’s proposed budget, now before the stateLegislature. Besides the issue of equity, it’s sure to face a skirmish overwhether fire “fee” is just a more palatable way of saying”tax.”
Not surprising, opposition comes from the Howard Jarvis TaxpayersAssociation.
“It’s a tax; it is not a fee for service. It is not proportionate to thebenefits derived,” said association President Jon Coupal.
The fee would overwhelmingly benefit residents of tony hillside communitiesover those in the middle of the suburban flatlands, Coupal said. It also wouldbenefit those who own vast vacant acreage yet pay no insurance.
“A guy who owns a 10-acre parcel in the forest but has made noimprovements – he doesn’t carry any insurance, but very likely (Cal Fire) isputting out a fire on his property,” he said.
But Bill Maile, an aide to the governor, said the proposed fee passes thetest of the independent Legislative Analyst’s Office.
“The money gained from the fee goes for the specific purpose of fightingfires and by definition of the legislative analyst, it is a fee,” Mailesaid.
Technical – and territorial – arguments aside, something must be done, ChiefFreeman said. There’s nothing more frustrating for firefighters and moreheartbreaking for residents than knowing flames are charging toward homes on toomany fronts for crews to handle.
More firefighters and more resources are needed, particularly as developmentmoves toward hillside areas, he said.
“If we step back and see who’s footing the bill that isn’t covered byinsurance, I think you’ll find it ultimately comes back to the taxpayer,”Freeman said.
Residents, he said, need to look at the big picture because boundaries areerased in emergencies and statewide resources are key.
“I don’t live in Malibu. I don’t want to live in Malibu,” Freemansaid. “But the reality is if we have an earthquake and my neighborhood iscut off in Whittier, I know the fire engines from Santa Clarita or RanchoCucamonga or Cal Fire are going to be there.”