Can Budget-Strapped California Afford More Wildfires?

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Nick Ut / AP

Fire crews walk near a wildfire in Oak Glen, Calif.

For more than a week, much of the Angeles National Forest has been an inferno as a ferocious fire, spurred by abnormally high temperatures and single-digit humidity, ripped through steep canyons, dense brush and forest untouched by flames for 60 years. The advancing fire has cut a moonscape swath through the middle of the mountain range that forms a barrier between the greater Los Angeles area and the Mojave Desert.

In addition to the lost lives of two firefighters, 76 destroyed homes and thousands of evacuees, the fire's financial toll has climbed to nearly $45 million. That has been the cost so far of a ground and air assault on the nearly 160,000-acre Station Fire, as it has been called, with more than 4,000 firefighters working the fire lines and an air fleet of 12 helitankers, seven helicopters and 11 airplanes — including a Boeing 747 and a DC-10 — pouring thousands of gallons of fire retardant on blazing hillsides. Only heroic work by firefighters saved the historic Mt. Wilson Observatory located 5,700 feet above Pasadena.

But this season's firefighting in California comes just as the state has made vast and deep cuts in nearly all services to balance its books. Can California afford to fight fires given its budget woes? And when does the federal government step in?

In the case of the Station Fire, the U.S. Department of Forestry will pick up a majority of the tab because more than 90% of the fire is in the Angeles National Forest. "One of the ways the federal government is supporting the state and local government in the Station Fire effort is that the U.S. Forest Service is providing over 1,600 of the 4,800 personnel fighting the fire," says Forest Service spokesman Caleb Weaver.

But there is more than just the Los Angeles fire for the state to worry about. A string of major wildfires has hit California over the summer. Addressing reporters on Sept. 3, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger tried to sound reassuring, "Even though we have a budget crunch and we have an economic crisis and we just solved a $23 billion deficit, we will always have the money available to fight the fires because public safety is our No. 1 priority."

Indeed, in the recently approved state budget, Schwarzenegger kept the budget of Cal Fire, the state department of forestry and fire protection, roughly level at $518 million (which is used for salaries of the department) and doubled the emergency fund for wildfires from $69 million to $182 million. But with high summer temperatures, the California fire season is off with a roar and from July 1 to Sept. 2 the state spent $108.7 million. "We have literally burned through more than half of the emergency fire fund," says Department of Finance spokesperson H.D. Palmer.

Once the remaining $73 million is gone, Palmer says California would turn to its general emergency fund, which totals $500 million. In signing the budget in July, Schwarzenegger made additional cuts in order to have half a billion dollars in reserves put aside for catastrophes such as fires and earthquakes.

Californians do not have to bear the full brunt of disaster, should it strike. Taxpayers across the nation share the cost of emergency responses to hurricanes in Florida, tornadoes in Kentucky and wildfires in California. When fires or other emergencies endanger property, states turn to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) for grants of assistance that pick up 75% of the expense. Since July, eight California wildfires have qualified for FEMA assistance, says Palmer.

FEMA spokesman Clark Stevens explains the process: "Fire-management assistance grants [from FEMA] provide impacted states with the financial support they need during a major fire event. These grants, requested by a governor, cover an array of firefighting expenses such as field camps, equipment use, repair and replacement, tools, materials and supplies and mobilization and demobilization activities." Stevens adds, "Since Aug. 28, Governor Schwarzenegger has requested and been granted five fire-management-assistance grants." He says FEMA will continue to work closely with California to make sure the state has the financial resources to combat wildfires. In short, if California is burned badly, it can turn to Uncle Sam for help to pay the bills.

But even with federal assistance, the California fiscal crisis — and in particular July's $1.9 billion raid on local government finances to help balance the state budget — could threaten the system of mutual aid between fire departments across the state. For example, several fire departments in northern California went south to help out with the Angeles National Forest blaze. As the fire season continues, however, budget cutbacks may force some local fire departments to stop participating in mutual aid. "Local agencies may have no choice but to hold back. A fire department's first responsibility is to protect the home front," says Carroll Wills, spokesman for the state firefighters union.