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 US$285 million ($408 million) in the past six weeks alone and up to US$13 million a day.
With the worst of the fire season still ahead, state legislators are scrambling to find a way to pay for it all and are considering levying homeowners with a disaster surcharge, requiring 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,” Governor 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 US$15.2 billion budget deficit. Schwarzenegger cited firefighting costs as a major factor when he ordered big wage cuts for some state workers and laid off others recently to cut costs.
Federal fire budgets and those in other Western states are strained as well.
More fires escaping initial attacks and quickly raging out of control because of a confluence of changes – primarily drier conditions and thicker brush and trees.
Add to that millions of people who have moved into fire-prone areas throughout the West over the past two decades, forcing state and federal firefighters to react aggressively to spare lives and property. Higher fuel and labour costs are also factors.
A decade ago, California spent US$44 million to fight fires for an entire year. The US$285 million already spent this financial year, which began on 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 spent US$13 million a day – more than the entire annual firefighting budgets of neighbouring Arizona and Nevada.
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, Senator Dianne Feinstein said this week.
Before its budget is replenished, the US Forest Service will be forced to transfer money from other programmes to cover firefighting expenses, she said.
Feinstein, a Democrat, is seeking US$910 million in emergency funding for the US Forest Service.
Between 1997 and last year, wildfires burned at least 2200sq km inCalifornia.
In recent years, the number of wildfires has declined slightly, but they are burning far more land.
Nevada’s firefighting costs have skyrocketed, too, from US$2.5 million 10 years ago to US$10 million today, about what Arizona spends in a bad fire year.
Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has proposed a 1.4 per cent surcharge on residential and commercial property insurance premiums in areas at high risk of fires, floods or earthquakes – about 80 per cent of the state.
Homeowners in the other areas would pay a 0.75 per cent premium.
Democrats who control the legislature doubled those percentages in their budget proposal, expecting to raise US$280 million annually for emergency response costs.
Twenty-nine states, including California, maintain a fund for responding to natural disasters.
But only three – Florida, Indiana and Maine – assess a surcharge or fee to pay for them.