California's wildfires aggravate budget woes

Two months into the fiscal year, the state has used more than half its firefighting budget. The LA flames appear to be spreading, but a week of firefighting may be starting to pay off.

California’s wildfires are not only burning trees – they’re burning state cash, and setting off a cascade of other problems in the state. Already, as the fires appeared to have spread in the past 24 hours, they have delayed a ballot count in two special elections.

Reuters reports that the fires couldn’t have come at a worse time, exacerbating a huge deficit and other woes caused by the economic downturn.

California's wildfires are burning through state cash at an alarming rate, with the government spending more than half its annual firefighting budget just two months into the fiscal year -- even before the traditional fire season began on Tuesday.
The state's ballooning budget deficit and sharp drop in revenues resulting from the recession have forced delays in replacing aging firefighting equipment, including 40-year-old bulldozers.
The firefighting effort could face new strains if the prison system, also trying to cut costs, releases 27,000 or more low-risk inmates -- the type the firefighting agency depends on for cheap, abundant labor.

Despite the budget problems, California officials insist they have the money to keep dousing the flames, the Contra Costa Times reports.

Cal Fire officials said recent budget cuts affecting their agency have not hindered firefighters' efforts to combat wildfires…
[Cal Fire Battalion Chief Julie] Hutchinson, of Cal Fire's Riverside County unit, and spokesman Bill Peters, of the San Bernardino County unit, both said budget cuts have not limited the number of firefighters or equipment that commanders are able to send to the fires."
They (budget cuts) really didn't affect this area. We get two new fire engines that we purchased last year. Our staffing is the same," Peters said.

Even without budget woes, putting out fires is a monumental task for the state, as the Christian Science Monitor detailed:

The flames have spread over 190 square miles of forest in a week. Some 12,000 homes remained threatened as 3,600 firefighters and aircraft battle the blaze across a 50-mile line.

A BBC interactive map provides a sense of the scale of the challenge.

On Tuesday, the fires appeared to have “consumed even more territory in the last 24 hours, at times erupting in devastating fire tornadoes,” reports ABC News. ABC adds, however, that “for the first time in a week of losing ground to the flames firefighters today expressed optimism that their efforts were having an effect.”

One of the fires, in the Angeles National Forest, “forced a delay in counting ballots in two special elections Tuesday in California,”one in the 51st Assembly District, the other the 10th Congressional district, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Political junkies who planned to wait up tonight for the outcomes of two special elections are going to lose sleep, thanks to the wildfire raging in the Angeles National Forest.
Los Angeles County Registrar-Recorder Dean Logan said it will be sometime after 10 p.m. before election officials start releasing ballot counts.

People living close to the flames posted a series of pictures of the blaze, as Newsweek reported in a series of Twitter updates:

"If my house goes, I wanna go with it." NITWIT! #stationfire
9:30 PM Aug 31 from TweetDeck
The Station Fire, as seen from my balcony #StationFire
1:30 AM Sept 1 from Posterous
I think Mt. Wilson just burst into flames. I will Picasa the pictures in the morning. This fire is unbelievable.#Stationfire
1:30 AM Sept 1 from web.
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