Calif. Wildfires Scorch State, Federal Budgets

By: Don Thompson AP
By: Don Thompson AP

SACRAMENTO (AP) - Faced with hundreds of sprawling, hard-to-control blazes, California is struggling with what could be its most expensive wildfire season ever, burning through nearly $300 million in just the past six weeks.

Costs have soared since the 2003 Southern California firestorm and keep rising, creating a quandary for state officials already struggling with a severe budget shortfall. They're considering slapping homeowners with a natural disaster surcharge, with those at higher risk paying the most.

The $285 million California has spent since its fiscal year began July 1 is more than the state spent to fight fires in nine of the previous 10 years.

Even worse, the Santa Ana season, when hot winds fan Southern
California's fire season, lies ahead.

"The costs have just been staggering," said state Sen. Christine Kehoe, a San Diego Democrat who is pushing one of several funding proposals in the Legislature.

Like the federal government, California is having trouble keeping up.

At the height of the battle against thousands of lightning-sparked fires in early July, the state was blazing through $13 million a day. That's more than the entire annual firefighting budgets of neighboring Arizona and Nevada.

Just a decade ago, California spent $44 million to fight fires for an entire year.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is borrowing money to pay this year's firefighting costs because the state remains without a budget. When they do pass a spending plan, lawmakers facing a $15.2 billion deficit will have to move money from other accounts to cover the escalating costs.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cited the cost of fighting the fires when he signed an executive order last month deferring wages for about 180,000 state workers and laying off 10,000 temporary and part-time employees.

Largely because of the thousands of fires in California this year, the national firefighting budget will be exhausted this week, Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Tuesday during an appearance in Sacramento.

Before its budget is replenished, the U.S. Forest Service will be forced to transfer money from other programs to cover its firefighting expenses, she said. Feinstein, D-Calif., is seeking $910 million in emergency funding for the Forest Service.

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.

"Together, these two fire seasons dramatically illustrate a new level of wildland fire in the United States," said a report released last April by a panel commissioned by the Forest Service and Department of Interior. A decade ago, the Forest Service spent about $300 million on firefighting.

The report said the biggest reason for the soaring costs is the massive size of recent wildfires. Four of the nation's 10 largest wildfires over the last decade - all exceeding 250,000 acres - were in 2007 alone. The number of fires exceeding 50,000 acres also reached a 10-year high last year.

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

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

"Two percent of our fires account for 98 percent of our costs. Big fires are costly fires," said Arizona State Forester Kirk Rowdabaugh, who co-chaired a national commission in 2004 that examined growing firefighting costs.

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.

What's changed is that fires that escape that initial attack can quickly rage out of control because of a confluence of changes - primarily drier conditions and thicker stands of brush and trees. The thicker underbrush, ironically, is a result of efforts to suppress fires rather than letting them burn.

The millions of people who have moved into fire-prone areas throughout the West over the last two decades also complicate firefighting efforts and mean that state and federal agencies must
react aggressively to spare lives and property.

Higher fuel and labor costs also are putting a strain on budgets.

California, for example, is paying more than $5 million this year for a DC-10 that can carry 12,000 gallons of fire retardant, plus $5,500 for each hour of flight time. A single bulldozer costs $1,100 to $5,600 per day, depending on its size and number of operators.

Nevada's state forester said firefighting costs have skyrocketed in that state, 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," said Rowdabaugh, the Arizona state forester. "Without question, America's fire situation has changed. It's not going to go back."

The question for California is what to do now.

Drier conditions have led to what Schwarzenegger has called a year-round fire season, which promises to keep firefighting budgets rising for years to come.

To deal with those costs, Schwarzenegger and state legislators are negotiating a surcharge that would be applied to homeowners' insurance policies, without exception.

The governor 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.

Kehoe, the state senator 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. The state's responsibility area makes up about a third of the state 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.

Kehoe said 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."

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.

Lawmakers who represent rural counties object that their residents already pay extra for fire protection and shouldn't be taxed twice as they would under Kehoe's proposal.

Republican Assemblyman Rick Keene, who represents the area north
of Sacramento that has burned repeatedly this year, opposes the
insurance surcharge proposals. He said Californians already pay
plenty of taxes.

Gordon Waterbury lived through the wildfires that burned this summer through miles of forest and brush east of Chico, about 90 miles north of the state capital. He said he is willing to pay a surcharge if the money goes directly to firefighting - and not administrative costs.

Waterbury, 55, moved to the tiny Sierra foothills town of Jarbo Gap a year ago after living most of his life near the Russian River in Sonoma County, where flooding was the greater danger.

"Virtually everyone in California is in high risk," he said between fixing sandwiches for diners at Scooters Cafe, a popular gathering spot for area residents. "It's a statewide problem; it really is."

(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)


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