California wildfires spark call to boost resources
But there's growing recognition that more trucks won't solve the root problem of wildlands development.
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This year is shaping up to be another doozy. Dryness levels already resemble August, says Paulson.Skip to next paragraph
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A lightning storm more than a week ago triggered over a thousand fires in northern California, accounting for most of the state's current 1,345 fires. Some 18,000 fire personnel are battling the blazes. Other states have sent teams and at least six National Guard tanker planes. Federal relief is in sight with President Bush declaring an emergency Saturday.
Visiting the coastal community of Big Sur, the scene of more fires, Governor Schwarzenegger urged Californians to lay off holiday fireworks.
The situation also prompted the Blue Ribbon Task Force, a panel of fire chiefs originally convened by the governor after the 2003 fires, to remind lawmakers of their call for 150 new engines, additional helicopter upgrades, and more staff. The task force also has long-term suggestions, including national wildland fire insurance and more local regulation of land use.
The governor has proposed paying for much of the new equipment with an insurance surcharge on residential and commercial property. Those located in high-risk zones for fire, flood, or earthquake will pay 1.4 percent; everyone else 0.75 percent.
With an estimated $15 billion state budget deficit, finding new revenues for additional spending has grown paramount. The task force supports the surcharge, so long as it goes to new equipment.
Insurance companies themselves are getting more proactive. AIG Private Client Group provides "wildfire protection units" to 3,200 Western clients whose homes would cost at least $1 million to replace. Under the program, AIG sends out trucks to spray the perimeter of a property with fire retardant ahead of fire season. Then, the company monitors wildfire activity. If fire threatens a home, another truck is sent to spray the house.
"It's by no means a private fire service. We don't go in there if a house is on fire and try to put the fire out," says AIG spokesperson Peter Tulupman.
Private companies offering similar services are sprouting up across the West. One such company, Pacific Fire Guard, started services this year in southern California. Customers pay roughly $1,800 for a typical 3,000-square-foot home.
"There's a balance between what level of investment we want to make in fire protection as part of our overall investment in public safety, and what responsibility we want the owners of homes in risky areas to accept," says Dr. Gilless.