California, USA — California’s brutal fire season isn’t over yet. But the most significant efforts this year to provide California with more fire engines and to reduce fire risk all have gone up in smoke, the victims of Sacramento politics.
Just as oil spills often usher in tougher oil tanker rules, and plane crashes bring new aviation safety regulations, this year’s massive fires 1,400 were burning at one time in June seemed to many to mean certain reforms.
Yet long-running political disagreements over taxes and local control of development prevented change.
“It’s tremendously disappointing,” said Carroll Wills, a spokesman for California Professional Firefighters, a coalition of unions representing 30,000 firefighters. “Despite all the fires this year, there really isn’t anything new to show in terms of big things or even small things.”
The most high-profile attempt to beef up firefighting resources came from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who proposed adding a surcharge on property insurance for all commercial and residential structures statewide.
In ZIP codes designated as “high-hazard zones” for earthquakes, fires or floods, the fee would have been 1.4 percent, about $12.60 a household per year. In “low-hazard zones,” the surcharge would have been 0.75 percent, or $6.75 a year.
It would have raised about $140 million a year. Those funds would have purchased new equipment, including 11 new helicopters and 131 fire engines for the state Office of Emergency Services to loan to local fire departments, more than doubling the total from 119 such engines to 250.
“I think we need those extra engines, we need more manpower, we need more aircraft, we need to update our aircraft that are outdated and so on,” Schwarzenegger said during a visit to Gilroy in May to tour the damage from the Summit fire. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done.”
But Schwarzenegger’s plan died quietly in September in Sacramento. Republican lawmakers argued it was a tax, and under Proposition 13, required a two-thirds vote. Because they had vowed no new taxes, they wouldn’t vote for it as part of any budget deal.
Schwarzenegger blasted them this week while touring fire lines in rural Los Angeles County among the 1.4 million acres across California burned so far. That’s more than double the five-year average from 2002 to 2006, which totaled 592,720 acres a year.
“We wanted to raise the fees for the homeowners. And there were some people that got stuck in their ideology and they were kind of debating over, is this a fee increase or is this a tax increase?” Schwarzenegger said.
He has vowed to bring up the issue next year.
Republican lawmakers, however, say firefighting is a high priority to them, but the state needs to reduce waste in other areas of government to cover costs.
“We understand the need. But we have to find it within existing revenues, not just keep having more and more taxes,” said Senate Republican Leader Dave Cogdill, R-Fresno.
Cogdill, whose district includes large sections of the Sierra, said his frustration is that Republicans want to allow private logging companies to thin overgrown national forests. But environmentalists always block attempts at allowing loggers to cut and sell some big live trees to help defray costs.
“It’s hands off, and when it burns you end up with a moonscape,” he said.
Meanwhile, a bill to charge a $50 yearly fee on the 900,000 homeowners living in rural areas statewide to fund fire prevention also died. That measure, SB 1617, by state Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, passed the Senate but died in the Assembly over anti-tax concerns. Another of her bills, to drop the two-thirds tax threshold to 55 percent for fire funding, also died.
Finally, three weeks ago, Schwarzenegger vetoed what was widely considered the most significant fire bill in Sacramento this year, a measure to require new subdivisions in rural areas to have at least two escape roads in and out, and for counties to demonstrate they have sufficient fire department resources nearby before approving them.
That bill, AB 2447 by Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, was opposed by the California Building Industry Association and the Regional Council of Rural Counties, who saw it as an incursion into their authority.
In a veto message, Schwarzenegger said it would bog down the state forestry department in deciding when new development had adequate fire protection.
“My goal was to make sure that we stop putting homeowners and firefighters in harm’s way,” Jones said. “This is extraordinarily disappointing, particularly given the extent to which the governor has visited these areas, talked to firefighters and seen how devastating these fires are.”