Bigger, tougher fires bring Calif. to the brink

Bigger, tougher fires bring Calif. to the brink

14 August 2008

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USA — Faced with hundreds of big, hard-to-control blazes, California is struggling with what could be its most expensive firefighting season ever, burning through $285 million in the last six weeks alone and up to $13 million a day.

With the worst of the fire season still ahead, lawmakers are scrambling to find a way to pay for it all and are considering slapping homeowners with a disaster surcharge that asks those in fire-prone areas to pay the most.

“There is no more fire season as we know it — the fire season is now all year-round,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said while touring wildfires last month in Northern California. “That means that we don’t have enough resources.”

The crisis comes as California deals with a $15.2 billion budget deficit, and Schwarzenegger cited firefighting costs as a major factor when he ordered wages deferred for state workers and laid off others recently to cut costs.

Fire budgets have been strained across the West because more fires are escaping initial attacks and raging out of control, due largely to drier conditions and thicker brush. Higher fuel and labor costs are also factors.

And then there are the millions of people who have moved into fire-prone areas throughout the region over the last two decades. Their presence has forced state and federal firefighters to react aggressively to spare lives and property.

A decade ago, California spent $44 million to fight fires for an entire year. The $285 million already spent this fiscal year, which began July 1, is more than a year’s worth of firefighting bills in nine of the previous 10 years.

During the first days of July, at the height of the battle against thousands of lightning-sparked fires, California blazed through $13 million a day. That’s more than the entire annual firefighting budgets of neighboring Arizona and Nevada.

Under the surcharge proposal, homeowners who live in higher-risk areas would pay the most, which is fine with Gordon Waterbury if the money goes directly to firefighting and not administrative costs.

Waterbury, 55, lived through fires that burned this summer through miles of forest and brush east of Chico, about 90 miles north of the state capital.

“Virtually everyone in California is in high risk,” he said recently as he fixed sandwiches for diners at Scooters Cafe in his tiny Sierra foothills town of Jarbo Gap. “It’s a statewide problem. It really is.”

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is borrowing money to pay this year’s firefighting costs because the state remains without an overall budget.

Largely because of the thousands of fires in California this year, the federal firefighting budget will be exhausted this week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Tuesday from Sacramento. Before its budget is replenished, the U.S. Forest Service will be forced to transfer money from other programs to cover firefighting expenses, she said.

Feinstein, D-Calif., is seeking $910 million in emergency funding for the U.S. Forest Service.

Between 1997 and 2007, wildfires burned at least 8,500 square miles in California. That’s an area about the size of New Jersey.

Arizona state forester Kirk Rowdabaugh, who co-chaired a national commission in 2004 that examined growing firefighting costs, said 2 percent of all fires account for 98 percent of costs.

“Big fires are costly fires,” he said.

Fire officials in California and other Western states contain all but about 2 percent of fires before they burn more than a few acres. Until the last few years, firefighting costs increased at about the same pace as the rest of the economy, Rowdabaugh said.

Nationwide, fires burned more than nine million acres last year, costing the federal government $1.4 billion. That was second only to 2006’s $1.5 billion, which set the modern record for number of fires, acreage and cost nationwide.

In California, the number of wildfires has declined slightly in recent years, but they burn far more land.

Nevada’s firefighting costs have skyrocketed, too, from $2.5 million 10 years ago to $10 million today, about what Arizona spends in a bad fire year.

“California is suffering from the same thing everyone else is,” Rowdabaugh said. “Without question, America’s fire situation has changed. It’s not going to go back.”

The question for California is what to do now.

Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has proposed a 1.4 percent surcharge on residential and commercial property insurance premiums in areas at high risk of fires, floods or earthquakes — about 80 percent of the state. Homeowners in the other areas would pay a 0.75 percent premium.

Democrats who control the Legislature doubled those percentages in their budget proposal, expecting to raise $280 million annually for emergency response costs. Under their plan, an average California homeowner would pay an additional $25.20 a year for living in a high danger area or $13.50 for those in lower risk areas.

State Sen. Christine Kehoe, a Democrat from San Diego, has a separate proposal to charge $50 a year to property owners in rural areas that fall within the state’s firefighting responsibility, which amounts to one-third of California and includes nearly 1 million homes, with thousands more being built and planned for fire-prone areas.

She projects the $50 fee would raise $45 million a year for fire protection. Her bill passed the state Senate and is awaiting consideration in the Assembly.

Twenty-nine states, including California, maintain a fund for responding to natural disasters. But only three — Florida, Indiana and Maine — assess a special surcharge or fee to pay for them.

Rural counties and legislators in California object that their residents already pay extra for fire protection and shouldn’t be taxed twice as they would under Kehoe’s proposal. Kehoe counters that California needs both her proposal and the insurance surcharge being negotiated by Schwarzenegger and legislative leaders.

“We can’t afford not to fight fires. Homes and lives are at stake,” she said. “These fires are only going to become more frequent and more intense.”

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