California burns through one quarter of firefighting budget

California burns through one quarter of firefighting budget

26 August 2013

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USA — They are some of the first personnel to set up shop on the site of a major California fire: the accountants.

Every taxpayer dollar spent battling Golden State blazes is tracked against the state’s budgeted amount. And so far, 2013 is on course to be an expensive year.

State officials say that through late last week, firefighting costs have totaled some $44.5 million for just the first seven weeks of the new fiscal year. That’s more than a quarter of the $172 million written into the spending plan signed by Gov. Jerry Brown on June 27.

“Whatever it takes, I’m going to make sure that the resources are deployed,” said Brown in a news conference with firefighters Monday morning in Tuolumne City.

The governor spoke on Sunday with President Obama regarding federal assistance in battling the Rim Fire that now encompasses more than 234 square miles of California wilderness.

“The President reiterated his commitment to providing needed federal resources to support the ongoing state and local response,” said the statement from the White House Press Office.

Even so, California’s costs are going to be large. Data from the state Department of Finance shows $2.3 billion in firefighting expenses from July 1999 through the spring of 2013 — an average of more than $160 million a year.

Three budget years were particularly devastating on the fire front: from the summer of 2007 through the summer of 2010, California spent more than $872 million to fight fires, far surpassing what was budgeted and coming during some of the state’s deepest recession years.

The costs of firefighting, even when in excess of what’s budgeted, are paid by state officials. The governor suggested in his comments on Monday that his push for a larger budget cash reserve this year, which totaled a projected $1.1 billion, allow some breathing room.

“Some people like to say, ‘Well, we’ve got some extra money, let’s go spend it on one program or the other,'” said Brown. “Well, we do have to keep a decent reserve, so when the unexpected happens, we’re ready for it.”

A CalFire spokesman says there have been 4,957 reported fires in California in 2013 — a notable jump from the 3,612 fires reported during all of 2012.

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