Bad fire season might require tapping rainy day fund

SACRAMENTO — Gov. Jerry Brown’s proposal to stash $1.6 billion in a rainy day fund as a buffer against future economic downturns could face a challenge this year from Mother Nature.

As Southern California firefighters on Thursday battled the Colby fire near Glendora and evidence mounted that the state is in a drought, state officials are concerned that the signs point to an expensive fire season that could undermine budget plans.

The governor is proposing that the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection budget for firefighting emergencies go from $152 million this year to $186 million in the fiscal year starting July. 1, based a rolling five-year average for such expenses. But that amount could prove inadequate if this is an especially bad year for wildfires.

In the 2007-08 fiscal year, rampant wildfires meant that the state faced $372 million in emergency firefighting costs, forcing officials to dip into the state reserve fund for $290 million, said H.D Palmer, a spokesman for the governor’s Department of Finance.

That occurred even though the state can be compensated by the federal government for many costs of wildfire suppression.

Palmer said the administration is absolutely concerned about the potential for an expensive fire season this year.

“That's why this year as in years past, the governor has stressed the need for a significant budget reserve,” Palmer said. “Because if emergency wildland suppression costs exceed the budgeted amount in a given year, the reserve covers the difference.”

Since Jan. 1, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has already responded to more than 150 wildfires, said Daniel Berlant, a department spokesman. In an average year, that number would be approximately 25 fires.

“The lack of rain has clearly led to dry conditions we have not experienced in decades,” Berlant said. “This year's significant increase in fire activity so early into the year is why the governor’s `rainy day fund’ is critical.”

The fire and drought issues are likely to affect upcoming budget deliberations.

“Without a doubt, the current fires and the growing number of fires will influence our debate on the budget reserves,” said Sen. Mark Leno (D-San Francisco), chairman of the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee.




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