Fire, flood, quake: Who pays, and how?

Saturated and hazardous slopes serve as a wet-season reminder of the fires of hotter months, and of the growing cost of protecting homes built too close to chaparral and forest areas periodically swept by wildfire. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has tried in the past to find a reasonable way to help fund fire protection in these areas, but his proposal this year again falls short.

He’s calling for a new, 4.8% surcharge on the premiums of all commercial and residential property insurance policies statewide. The money would go into the general fund this year to help balance the budget, and would be used for emergency fire and disaster protection in future years. That’s a reasonable proposal because homes throughout the state may, from time to time, require emergency response to an earthquake or other natural disaster, and all owners should bear a portion of the burden.

But that can’t be the end of it. Developers who choose to build and homeowners who choose to buy in the state’s most likely hazard areas should not expect to be fully subsidized by property owners with perhaps less picturesque but more prudently situated homes and businesses. Making matters worse, some localities, not including L.A. city and county, have chosen not to tax their residents for additional fire protection while at the same time eagerly approving new construction in fire hazard zones, knowing that state-funded Cal Fire will come to the rescue in an emergency.

The state legislative analyst offers an alternative proposal under which new fire protection fees would be paid only by property owners in those forest and other wildlandareas where the state has primary fire protection responsibility. That may go too far in the other direction because all Californians need and deserve -- and should pay for -- emergency response. But such costs should be proportional to the risk, and should be higher for those who choose to live in areas prone to fire, flood and, yes, earthquake. California needs a tiered fee system.

A change in the law is also necessary to ensure that local governments take fire and other hazards into account when approving and permitting new construction. Schwarzenegger has repeatedly vetoed bills to require that cities and counties take greater account of fire risks and ensure that adequate firefighting resources exist before approving new subdivisions. The governor said such new laws would require staff time the state can’t afford. A couple of minutes with a calculator, however, might suggest otherwise, given that the contract rate for that DC-10 tanker Cal Fire uses for the bigger fires is about $26,500 an hour, and that the lives of firefighters are being put in increasing jeopardy each year to save vacation homes and subdivisions planted ever deeper into the wilderness.