California wildfires: 2014 budget spent, as typical high-fire season begins

Facing historic drought conditions, California firefighters are tapping into a state backup fund. As a result, firefighting crews can still be deployed and water tankers flown, despite spending beyond annual firefighting budget.                           

Randall Benton/The Sacramento Bee/AP
A US Forest Service crew from Plumas County cleans up along Wentworth Springs Road near Uncle Tom's Cabin in El Dorado County on Sept. 18, 2014. The King fire, now about 92 percent contained, has burned some 97,000 acres.

As California heads into peak fire season – in the worst drought in state history – firefighters are already tapping into reserve funds.

That means that in just the first three months of the fiscal year, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (known as Cal Fire) has already spent all of the $209 million budgeted this year for wildfires. Once lasting about three months, the California wildfire season now runs pretty much year round.

If that’s the bad news, here’s the good: The massive King fire, which has destroyed 97,000 acres just northwest of Yosemite National Park, is 92 percent contained. And the first snow of the season dumped up to three inches along the Lake Tahoe Basin.

It was the first time in several years that a storm had dropped so much snow on the Sierra this early in the year, according to the National Weather Service in Sacramento.

But perhaps the best news is that the state has already prepared for such a contingency with a special fund for just such fiscal uncertainties.

“The reason that fire expenditures have exceeded this year’s budgeted amount is neither because of the legislature or the governor but rather Mother Nature,” says H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance. “Fortunately the state has prepared for this very contingency.”

Without having to resort to political maneuvering, the money is available from a $449 million special fund, Mr. Palmer says. Cal Fire has asked the state for an additional $70 million, “and if they need more, we will simply go back to the legislature and get it,” Palmer says. “If we need more, we have authority to spend at a deficit level. We will do whatever is necessary to make sure Cal Fire has whatever it needs. No one has to worry that crews will not be deployed or water tankers not fly.”

That emergency fund fallback is smart planning, say fire experts. In fact, California is better off than the federal firefighting agencies, because Congress has failed to pass legislation that would establish a separate FEMA-like funding mechanism for the Forest Service, Park Service, and other agencies also confronting hotter, drier, and more flammable conditions.

"But just because California has contingency plans for how Cal Fire can continue to fight fires for the next three months should not lull us into complacency," says Char Miller, professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

"The fact that the Southern California fire season has not yet taken off means we have another 90 days of high fire in the state’s most populated region," he adds. "It also means that the state legislature needs to build more funding into the relevant firefighting budgets in the coming years: This pattern of increasing fire in California is the new and unsettling normal. Red flags now fly 12 months a year."

Others wonder aloud if putting fires out – successfully/expensively or not – sends the wrong signal to a society that is moving into the wildland/urban interface in record numbers. The price tag for fighting the state's four most expensive fires exceeds the entire emergency fund, according to Cal Fire’s Daniel Berlant.

"Fuel management is far more efficient way to reduce risk than fire suppression,” says Ron Steffens, chair of Wildfire Magazine’s editorial board,  “But until we can support fuel management as needed in an era marked by fuel buildup, communities built in fire zones, and climate change, we will need to budget for the costs of managing larger and more frequent wildfires."

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