Fire fee a solution for strapped Western states

Fire fee a solution for strapped Western states

July 23rd, 2011 by Associated Press in Local - Breaking News

By DON THOMPSON and JEFF BARNARD

Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. - The wildfire season in California has been tame so far, but that isn't stopping lawmakers from trying to make sure the cash-strapped state has enough money to fight future fires.

They already have a solution: charge an annual firefighting fee to people who live in or near forests.

Neighboring states have been using similar fees for years. As more people move closer to forests and wildfires become more costly, a fee may prove more attractive to legislators when the alternative is to cut programs elsewhere in the budget.

Critics of the California fee call it unfair, saying rural residents already pay taxes to the state and should expect basic services in times of emergency. Supporters disagree, saying that people who live in fire-prone areas should pay for their own protection.

"This bill recognizes that a portion of the costs borne by the state for wildland fire prevention and protection services should be funded by the landowners in these areas," Gov. Jerry Brown said in his signing statement.

The West has seen an explosion in the amount of acreage burned by wildfires during the past decade. At the same time, costs have increased to fight fires in the growing communities nestled in what once were remote areas.

Nationwide, the equivalent of California's population - nearly 38 million people - has moved into areas where forests border cities and suburbs over the last 20 years, said Mark Rey, who had oversight of the U.S. Forest Service during the George W. Bush administration. Rey said that vastly complicates the job of fighting wildfires.

The firefighting fees have been helpful in Oregon, Rey said. "I don't think Oregon otherwise would have the quality of firefighting response it has today without those," he said.

In California, a $150 annual firefighting fee will be levied on rural homeowners. According to the state, more than 846,000 homes covered by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection would be affected.

The department is responsible for preventing and fighting wildfires on 31 million rural acres. The vast area covers about one-third of California, including much of the Sierra Nevada foothills and the coastal mountain ranges from Santa Barbara to the Oregon border.

The federal government is primarily for firefighting on another roughly 40 million acres, mostly at higher elevations.

California expects to collect $50 million in the first year the fee is imposed and ultimately $200 million a year, which would equal 20 percent of the annual budget of the Forestry and Fire Protection department.

The fee and the revenue eclipse much smaller fees on far fewer owners in Idaho, Montana, Oregon and Washington.

Owners of smaller parcels in Washington pay $18 a year, while most Oregon forest homeowners pay about $66 annually. The assessments date back decades, to the years when private timber companies first taxed themselves to pay for fire protection.

While the dedicated firefighting fee is a budgeting solution where it's been implemented, officials in three Western states that have suffered major wildfire damage this year or last - Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado - say they have no plans to impose one.

To help defray the costs of fighting wildfires, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper recently signed a bill transferring some $3 million in taxes the state receives from drilling and mining to the state's Wildfire Preparedness Fund. That money typically goes to local governments to offset the effects of drilling, such as damaged roads.

A legislator representing a forested district in eastern Arizona - where a fire this May and June became the largest in state history - said she hasn't heard talk of such a charge.

"We're moving in the wrong direction if we think we solve this problem by making people pay more taxes," Republican Sen. Sylvia Allen said. "We have to get really serious about thinning and removing debris in the forest and stopping these catastrophic fires."

State officials say the state likely used its entire $5 million budget to fight fires for the just-concluded fiscal year in May and June alone.

New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez said this week that her administration is not considering a wildfire fee.

Oregon Associate State Forester Paul Bell said it costs 48 percent more to fight fires around homes than it does in the open forest because of the more intensive use of helicopters and bulldozers and a higher concentration of firefighters. In addition, he said more fires start around homes than in the wild.

Oregon landowners are responsible for the costs of fighting fires on their property, and Bell said the state fees have done a good job of covering that liability. The fee raises about $7 million annually, which in some years is more than the entire cost of fighting wildland fires.

Richard Scanlon said he was barely aware that he paid Oregon's fee as one of 1,251 of homeowners in the Black Butte Ranch vacation home community in the forested central part of the state, but said the levy makes sense.

"For those people in peril like we are, close to a potential situation, I think, yes, why not?" said Scanlon, who had two neighbors who lost their homes in 2002 when a wildfire forced the community to evacuate.

States' firefighting costs vary widely, depending on the number and severity of wildfires. But that variability only adds to the unpredictability of trying to balance a budget in already lean times.

California, for example, spent a recent low of $93 million in the 2005-06 fiscal year, followed by a record $372 million during an extremely active season two years later.

Oregon spent $57 million in the 2002-03 fiscal year, which included a 500,000-acre blaze in southwestern Oregon that was the biggest in the nation that year, but just $2 million two years later.

An Associated Press analysis of fire cost data during the past decade shows that 12 Western states from the Rocky Mountains west to Alaska spent at least $377.5 million. Some states did not have data for all 10 years, and Hawaii is excluded from the calculation.

Lake Tahoe, straddling the California-Nevada border, where homes have been crowding around one of the country's natural wonders for decades, is among the areas where the potential for a devastating wildfire is acute.

Four years ago, a fire driven by high winds and densely packed trees destroyed 254 homes, caused $140 million in property damage and scorched 3,100 acres in a subdivision that had sprouted on the California side of the lake near its southern end.

Many homeowners have rebuilt amid charred stumps and barren soil, looking out over acres of blackened trees against a backdrop of snowcapped peaks. Several offered opinions about California's $150 wildfire fee on a recent afternoon.

"We said when we moved in here in 2005, if you want to live in nature there will be a slight risk of a wildfire," said Kenn Wulff, who tried to fight the flames with a garden hose before fleeing with his wife, dog, and his parents. Wulff said the fee should be voluntary, but said he probably wouldn't pay it because there's nothing left to burn in his community.

---

Barnard reported from Grants Pass, Ore. Associated Press writers Paul Davenport in Phoenix, Tim Fought in Portland, Ore., and Kristen Wyatt in Denver contributed to this report.