The Next Record-Breaking Fire Will Happen Soon. So How Will California Pay for it?

California’s lawmakers are considering how much of the cost of fires sparked by electrical equipment should be paid by taxpayers and how much by utility companies.

by The Times Editorial Board, Los Angeles Times / August 13, 2018

(TNS) - The Thomas fire that roared through Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in December broke records, becoming the state’s largest wildfire in recorded history. But not for long. This month, the Mendocino Complex fire in Northern California broke a record for acres burned. Will the record be broken in another few months or sometime next year? It seems possible, given what fire officials and state leaders say about California’s heightened wildfire risk because of the effects of climate change.

“This is part of a trend, a new normal, that we’ve got to deal with,” Gov. Jerry Brown said at a news conference with fire officials last week. To that end, he added, the state needs to reexamine how it manages forests, where and how it builds houses and how much to invest in fire protection services.

California’s lawmakers have started grappling with some of these issues. They’re considering how much of the cost of fires sparked by electrical equipment should be paid by taxpayers and how much by utility companies; they’ve proposed stepped-up removal of the 129 million dead trees that fuel big wildfires. Earlier this year, the governor added nearly $100 million extra to the current budget to pay for thinning trees and for controlled burns, among other things.

To pay for ongoing fire costs, one thing that should be put back on the table is the $150 annual fire prevention fee that used to be levied on owners of rural properties in high fire-risk areas. Democratic lawmakers did away with that fee last year in order to get enough Republican votes for an extension of the state’s cap-and-trade program. It may have been a necessary compromise to get the deal, but it cut off a reliable source of funds for ongoing fire prevention in rural communities that, in some cases, have refused to pass their own fire service taxes.

The fee was intended to pay only for fire prevention projects, such as brush removal and property inspections, but it could be reimagined more broadly. Yes, rural communities, which tend to be more Republican, will hate any new fee. But they can’t deny that wildfires are taking an increasingly heavy human toll and that California is dedicating more resources to protecting their homes and lives. Six people have died so far fighting the summer’s wildfires.

Last year, the state added $42 million to the regular budget for suppressing fires because of the extended fire season. These costs are heavily subsidized by Californians who live in urban areas (and also pay their own local fire departments). That’s reasonable. Everyone in the state benefits when wildfires are put out or avoided. But it’s not quite fair for state taxpayers to pick up all the extra costs to protect homeowners who have chosen to move into high fire-risk areas. And really, $150 a year or even twice that much seems like a bargain; it’s a tiny share of what was spent to save homes and lives just in the last two years.

The fire protection fee was bringing in about $70 million dollars when it was eliminated; the budget was backfilled by the cap-and-trade fund, but that’s not a long-term solution because cap and trade has been extended only through 2030. Neither is tapping the state’s rainy day fund, which is intended for unforeseen emergencies, not for disasters that can be predicted.

Of the state’s $2-billion budget for fire protection services, about $1.6 billion pays for salaries, equipment and facilities. The rest — about $443 million — is for fire emergency costs, such as paying for help from other fire departments that pitch in to help and for the large water-dropping air tankers that are operated by private companies. But just one month into the 2018-19 fiscal year, the state already has spent about a quarter of its emergency fund. Some of that money may be reimbursed to the state by the federal government for protecting national land, but if the fire season is as bad as predicted, the emergency fund will be tapped out.

If indeed California’s future holds bigger, more destructive fires, we need a better way to pay for fighting them — one that recognizes that living in some of the state’s most beautiful and rugged corners puts a bigger pinch on state fire resources.

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©2018 Los Angeles Times

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