California burns through its firefighting funds. Homeowner fees ahead?

Lawmakers advance a bill to add insurance surcharges to those living in disaster-prone areas. Critics say it's overbroad.

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    Firefighters work to control flames of the Gap fire as hundreds of wildfires burn in central and northern California.
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Oakland, Calif. - California spent $412 million fighting wildfires last fiscal year – a record. Just two weeks into the new budget year, the state has already burned through a third of that total.

Firefighting costs far surpass their budget allotment, even as the state's $15 billion overall deficit has officials in Sacramento breaking out the hatchets. One major budget cut proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), slashing Medicaid dental coverage for adults, roughly equals the cost overruns incurred last year from wildfire fighting.

The red ink has focused Sacramento on firefighting costs as never before. A consensus is emerging that if California is to continue to protect fire-prone homes, owners must pay more fees and local officials must pay more heed to fire danger.

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"Everybody is now realizing we are going to spend a lot of money, ... and we might have to pass tax increases to pay," says Bill Stewart, a forestry specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. "We're not paying for [fire protection] out of the petty cash drawer anymore."

Technically, federal, state, and local governments divide roughly into thirds the lands in California over which they have wildfire responsibility. In reality, the feds often do more. The US has offered, for instance, to pay 75 percent of the $214 million state and local governments have spent on firefighting since the siege of lightning-strike fires on June 20.

Moreover, the state routinely deploys its assets outside its jurisdiction to help local fire districts – something no other state in the West does, says Dr. Stewart. That backstop encourages some fire districts to be woefully underfunded, thereby shifting costs from direct beneficiaries to residents of the state as a whole, he says.

Leaders in Sacramento are moving toward pushing some costs back to the local level. The governor proposed adding a surcharge onto all homeowners' insurance; the surcharge would be higher for those living in fire, flood, or earthquake zones. A budget conference committee adopted a version of the plan this week.

Stewart says it's a step in the right direction, though the risk assessment is so crude that it would encompass most California property owners. Better, he says, was a failed plan to target fees just on homeowners in state fire jurisdictions.

Such a targeted fee, argues Lt. Gov. John Garamendi (D), couldn't have raised enough money fast enough. He also backs applying the surcharge to flood and quake zones because the equipment purchased from the revenues could be used in those types of emergencies, too.

He and Stewart agree on the merits of other pending bills. One proposes a $50 annual fee on each structure within state fire jurisdiction, to fund fire-prevention efforts. Another would prevent construction of new subdivisions unless they meet fire code restrictions, such as having more than one exit, and unless local authorities can supply adequate fire protection.

"This is 'show me the fire protection,' " says Bill Allayaud, chief of staff for Assemblyman Dave Jones. "Don't approve X number of lots unless the local fire agency can fight fires there, or contract with the state. There must be the manpower, resources, engines, and water to do it."

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