This editorial can also be found in the section "Editorials"
State Fire Prevention Fee
Beverly B. Voelkelt
Mountain News editorial – July 21, 2011
With the passing of the State Fire Prevention Fee by the legislator and the signing of this fee into law by Governor Brown, a lively discussion over the fee's merit and legality quickly ensued. Several anti tax organizations are already preparing lawsuits against the state, claiming the fee is not a fee but a tax and wish to have it removed.
While nobody should have to pay any undue fees and taxes it is, in my opinion, important to look at this issue from multiple perspectives in order to better understand what is at stake so one can make an informed decision.
The state asserts that about 850.000 properties are at risk of potential wildfire impact within the State Responsibility Area (SRA), the regions served primarily by CAL FIRE, the state’s fire fighting agency. According to Thomas M. Bonnicksen, Ph.D., a forest restoration expert, more than three million acres of California land burned between 2000 and 2008. There are an additional eight million acres, or roughly 2/3 of the identified acreage, still at risk of high intensity and catastrophic wildfire. According to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) Fire and Resource Assessment Program (CALFRAP) it is estimated that about eight million people now live in the wildland urban interface or wildland urban intermix.
Firefighting costs in California’s national forests alone have climbed to one billion dollars a year in recent years. From 1994 to 2004 California’s direct firefighting costs grew from about $ 40 million to over $ 250 million annually. It is safe to assume that this expenditure increased significantly since 2004. Although federal and state agencies share fire suppression costs, the state now needs to dip into emergency funds on a regular basis. Furthermore, this cost reflects only the expenses related to fire suppression, not the total economic damage caused by wildfires in terms of homes destroyed, economic productivity impact, watershed destruction, etc. For example, nationwide the National Wildland Urban Interface Council (NWUIC) estimates the total annual economic impact of wildfires to taxpayers, communities and businesses to exceed 10 billion dollars every year.
We know that CAL FIRE’s engine staffing was reduced from four firefighters down to three firefighters in order to safe money. Having that fourth firefighter on board the engine can make a big difference when the team finds itself in a difficult situation where the additional person is needed. We just learned the DC-10 super tanker would not be available this fire season because the state cannot afford to pay the retainer fee. Twice already this airplane came to the assistance of ground crews during fires in the San Bernardino Mountains. State and county agencies are not in a position to consequently enforce fire code abatement due to lack of funding. We also learned the fire departments of Big Bear Lake and Big Bear City are consolidating in order to save money for the communities. In other words, budget issues are a serious challenge to the fire departments we depend on for fire protection. Moreover, we now live under the constant scrutinizing by insurance companies, assessing whether or not properties in wildfire prone regions can be insured against loss, which, once a policy is denied or not renewed, can have serious ramifications on property values in an already difficult market.
During the past decade the communities of the San Bernardino Mountains made tremendous progress in mitigating the potential impact of wildfire - an effort all participants can be proud of. Federal grant monies from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and emergency appropriations from Congress totaling well over 150 million dollars created a much more fire safe environment. However, there is still much more work that needs to be done and, once completed, must continue on a sustained level of proactive maintenance work. This work, of course, comes with a price tag, which is either borne by the cash strapped federal government or cash strapped California.
In a recent letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times a reader from Manhattan Beach commented on the effort by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association’s intended lawsuit over the State Fire Fee (tax). The reader asked why is this organization suing on behalf of those living in the high-risk regions when he is subsidizing the cost of fire fighting for residents of these areas with his taxes? In his opinion they should be suing on behalf of the population not living in wildfire areas to have their contribution to fire protection in the wildland urban interface reduced. This is, of course, an over simplified approach because the impact of wildfires affects all Californians in one way or another. On the other hand, one must consider the question of what is a fair share of a contribution to wildfire protection and prevention when the cost of fire fighting is so high.
Perhaps a reasonable fee, and 100 – 150 dollars per year appear reasonable, is indeed a solution for state and local fire departments to continue providing world-class fire fighting and fire prevention services in our mountain communities and elsewhere in California.
Perhaps the focus of any critique of this fire fee needs to be on how the collected funds are allocated and distributed. The state’s intention of providing funds to hire and train firefighters, pay for educational programs, issue grants to fire safe councils and other pre-fire risk mitigation efforts are commendable. However, this must be done in an equitable manner to benefit all communities and all fire departments in the wildland urban interface, not just CAL FIRE and the communities in the state responsibility areas.
For more detailed information on “what is at stake?” and issues regarding “fire insurance” please visit
The author is the former Director of Operations for the Arrowhead Communities Fire Safe Council and is involved in community wildfire risk mitigation.