USA — Devouring wildlands across California, more than 300 fires are creating immense logistical challenges for firefighters and burning a deeper hole into the state budget. Beneath the hot, smoky air shrouding the Golden State, instant communities spring up overnight to equip, feed and house more than 20,000 firefighters and support personnel.
The staggering costs of battling the flames and protecting property flared up in mid-June when lightning strikes ignited nearly 1,800 blazes — the largest known outbreak of fires in state history.
The fire surge has already cost California more than $100 million in firefighting expenses and the federal government more than $220 million since June 20. Last year’s fire season was the costliest in state history, and this year’s fires and hot, dry weather pose mounting fiscal challenges.
The multiplying expenses include fire retardant-dropping air tankers that cost $14,000 a day, plus $6,500 per hour. They also include millions more for other equipment and everything from allergy tablets to skin lotions to food and water for heat-stressed fire crews.
The escalating costs have prompted Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to ask lawmakers for an increase in private insurance premiums to pay for fire suppression in a drought-fueled fire season that he says now runs almost year-round.
“We will do everything we can. All the resources we have will be poured into these fires,” Schwarzenegger said last week, touring damage caused by the Humboldt fire near Paradise. “We’re going to make sure that we use every engine that we have, every man that is fighting fires.”
The latest fires are adding to far and away the most expensive year in California firefighting history. In the budget year ending June 30, the state spent more than $390 million for firefighting and related costs — $310 million over budget.
Federal costs topped $570 million, including $340 million for fire suppression. The money was poured into fighting such blazes as last summer’s Angora fire near Lake Tahoe and the October fires in San Diego.
With California facing a $15.2 billion deficit and no sign of a budget for the fiscal year that began July 1, checks continue to be cut for fire costs under emergency declarations by the governor.
The checks fund rapid deployment of manpower and materiel.
Staging the firefight
In Mendocino County, where multiple fires have burned more than 52,000 acres, authorities assembled 2,000 firefighters and support crew members. They are backed by a command center at the Ukiah fairgrounds and three base camps near the flames.
State authorities, inmate crews and private contractors set up mobile kitchen units, fueling facilities and climate-controlled, air-conditioned tents so that weary, smoke-stressed firefighters “can get a quality sleep in 100-degree weather,” said Roseville Fire Department Division Chief Dennis Mathisen working with Cal Fire.
Mobile laundry facilities at the fairgrounds and fire camps are washing 650 pounds of clothes an hour. Meanwhile, Brienna Buchanan, a Marin County Fire Department engineer assigned to the Mendocino fires, makes scores of calls, lining up portable showers and latrines, and ordering 1,700 boxed lunches for firefighters for a single day.
“You’re essentially building a small town,” Buchanan said.
U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Gina Torvinen said fires in three counties in Tahoe National Forest sparked a similar rush to supply federal crews.
“We’re buying everything — water and Gatorade and lumber and first aid supplies,” she said. “We have meal agreements with local vendors and national catering contracts — whatever is needed to take care of that many people.”
The major costs come in personnel and equipment. California fire officials say they have deployed more than 450 fire crews, more than 1,500 engines, 298 bulldozers, 413 water tenders and 123 helicopters battling blazes that have charred more than 817,000 acres.
Federal help on the way
On Thursday, Schwarzenegger wrote President Bush requesting additional federal fire crews and out-of-state firefighters to train state National Guard members deploying in the firefighting effort.
As Congress voted Wednesday to create an emergency fund for catastrophic fires, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., requested $610 million “to meet the immediate needs of firefighters battling wildfires in California and across the country.”
The money would cover federal crews only.
But California stands to receive federal emergency grants for up to 75 percent of costs of fires in six California counties — Butte, Santa Barbara, Solano, Napa, Monterey and Santa Cruz — already deemed major disasters.
Meanwhile, amid the smoldering terrain of the Humboldt fire, Schwarzenegger last Monday called for legislative support of an “emergency response initiative” to impose a surcharge for firefighting on commercial and homeowner insurance policies. He said the plan would pay for more than 130 new state fire engines, “extra aircraft … and the extra manpower we need.”
“The traditional fire season that went from the end of summer through fall has extended itself,” Schwarzenegger said, predicting continued fiscal challenges. “Every year the fire season got longer and longer and longer, and this year we have seen that there really is no fire season any more.
“The first fires start in February, and they go all year through.”
Private sector payout
On Wednesday, a legislative conference committee doubled the proposed surcharges in Schwarzenegger’s plan. As it stands now, homeowners and business owners in high-risk fire areas would pay a 2.8 percent surcharge on property insurance policies. All other homeowners and business owners would pay a 1.5percent surcharge.
If passed, the plan is expected to generate $68 million for California firefighting efforts over the next year and $138 million for the 2009-10 fiscal cycle.
Because the logistics of fighting so many fires at once vastly exceeds available state resources, Cal Fire officials are exercising existing contingency contracts with regional businesses from heavy-equipment operators to caterers.
The state maintains three-year contracts with vendors and contractors across California to ensure fixed rates for wildfire emergencies.
So, in Mendocino County, Cal Fire equipment specialist Rich Noonan summoned 44 additional bulldozers and 38 water tenders and fire-trained operators. The daily cost — under the established “call when needed” contracts — is $5,000 for each dozer team and accompanying transport vehicle, and $2,700 for each water truck.
Contractors heed the call
One of those called was Bob Fortner, whose Fortner Excavation normally carves out subdivision roads or decorative ponds for coastal and mountain retreats in Mendocino County.
Fortner, whose five-man company has been trained by Cal Fire, provided three water trucks to resupply engines and spray down helipads for air teams battling the fires. Directed by firefighters, his bulldozer unit opened up fire breaks and “safety zones” near the flames.
Fortner had to put off construction projects for private clients.
“For the most part, people understand it’s an emergency,” he said.
With state and inmate-run mobile kitchens overwhelmed trying to feed thousands of firefighters, Cal Fire turned to vendors such as Julie Demasi, owner of the Box Lunch Company in San Francisco.
Since mid-June, Demasi has expanded her work force from 70 employees to 90 to bake fresh cookies and ciabatta and focaccia breads for more than 40,000 meals sent to firefighting sites. With state skies acrid with smoke, she doesn’t expect to be downsizing any time soon.
“We’ve added a second shift, and the way this is going, we’re not sure if they’ll be temporary workers or full time,” Demasi said. “We thought this would last just a few days, but it’s turning out to be weeks.”