USA — Now that the Butte County lightning fires are almost fully contained and the threat has passed for now, there’s one big nagging question: How will the government pay the bill?
The cost of fighting the more than 2,000 fires statewide, now approaching 1 million acres burned, will be hundreds of millions of dollars. The tab for the Butte County fires alone is nearly $70 million.
In a state with a $15.2 billion deficit and politicians who are deadlocked again on a state budget agreement, the bill is enormous. That’s why Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state legislators were thrilled to see President George W. Bush in Redding last week they want the deep-pocketed federal government to chip in all that it can muster.
Somehow the bills will get paid, even if it means slicing some other part of the state budget.
Now is a good time to think about the next time, however.
Schwarzenegger in January proposed a new way to expand Cal Fire’s budget higher insurance for property owners who live in high-risk areas.
In the May revision of his budget proposal, he altered the fire idea somewhat. He proposed a two-tiered system for people who live in high-hazard and low-hazard zones.
The zones are drawn up by Cal Fire scientists based on a variety of factors, including historic burn patterns.
The governor’s proposal is for several kinds of natural disasters, not just fires. The proposal also outlines risk zones for earthquakes and floods, so homeowners and business owners would face insurance fees in those areas as well.
Property owners in high-risk areas would pay an average of $12.60 a year in high-risk zones and an average of $6.75 annually in lower risk zones. The governor’s office says that would raise $125 million annually for Cal Fire.
Republicans in the Legislature oppose the proposal because they see it as a new tax. There’s also the question of fairness. Is it fair for people in cities like Los Angeles or Chico to pay the same amount in taxes for fire protection as people in Concow and Big Sur? Or for people in Oroville and Orland to pay for the same earthquake protection as people in San Francisco or Northridge?
People who live in areas prone to fires, floods and earthquakes already pay more in insurance. But those higher insurance premiums do nothing to fund local and state emergency services. Do they deserve higher fees? It’s worth discussing.
We believe it opens a can of worms. All regions don’t receive equal benefit from the tax dollars they pay, but the shared system works. Adding surcharges based on usage would mean we in the north valley would pay next to nothing for gasoline taxes (since we get little benefit from road projects compared to more populated areas), earthquake response, ocean protection, delta restoration and the state’s water delivery system.
But of course, we should chip in for all of that, just as urban areas should help pay for the state’s firefighting efforts.
A better strategy would be to impose stricter standards on people who build in fire-prone areas. Cal Fire and the state fire marshal’s office have been discussing wildland building codes since 2005, but local governments have been slow to adopt the new standards. Being smarter about where and how we build would go a long way toward solving the firefighting funding problem.