Our View: Finding ways to fund firefighting
Early this year a small fire district on Tahoe’s West Shore received a scare when nearly a quarter of its budget was on El Dorado County’s chopping block.
Thankfully, the Meeks Bay Fire Protection District got a reprieve. But the issue of funding fire agencies, particularly the state’s Calfire, is again on the frontburner due to the recent and largest outbreak of wildfire in the Golden State’s history.
And more than any time in the state’s history, California’s developers and residents are moving deeper into fire-prone areas. Paying for those firefighters who heroically defend those homes is becoming an increasing burden on all of the state’s taxpayers.
Taxpayers should expect to share the burden of protecting the state’s forests. But as the Los Angeles Times recently opined, it is unfair to compel property owners statewide to also underwrite efforts to defend homeowners who choose to live in wildfire regions.
Following last fire season that saw South Lake Tahoe go up in flames and then what seemed like all of Southern California, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed an insurance surcharge on all property owners to fund what will surely be a growing Calfire budget. The governor’s effort, however, unfairly apportioned costs, according to the state’s nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office.
The Los Angeles Times notes that in May the governor came back with a two-tiered system, with lower fees paid by property owners in low-risk areas. We agree with the Times in that it’s a step in the right direction. However it still fails to require developers who court disaster to foot an appropriate share of the bill.
Meanwhile, Senate Bill 1617 proposes a $50 surcharge on structures in fire zones. SB 1617 would require property owners in State Responsibility Areas to pay an annual $50 fee for each occupied structure to fund wildfire prevention efforts.
Development in the wildland-urban interface is approved ” and then property taxes collected ” at the local level. Now, a good portion of those property taxes are needed for ” along with a long list of other essential public services ” assuring homes will not burn in what have become increasingly volatile fire seasons. But property taxes aren’t what they were at the height of the real estate boom, as Meeks Bay fire experienced when dealing with El Dorado County budget review.
State Sen. Christine Kehoe of San Diego, the author of SB 1617, and the governor are looking for ways to solve what will only become more costly efforts to battle intense fires that threaten homes where once there were none.
“Local land-use approvals for residential development in the backcountry should be tied to the future cost of firefighting,” Kehoe recently told the Wall Street Journal. “If they want to approve a new development, they should be required to plan for ongoing fire prevention; otherwise, this problem will continue without interruption.”
Following recent fire assessments in North Tahoe and Truckee, there are surely many people who will balk at paying any more. But as last summer and the past month have shown, it takes more than communities and politicians giving heartfelt thanks to heroic firefighters ” we have to somehow pay them.