As Californians have crowded the state’s bucolic foothills and scenic mountains with subdivisions and cabin retreats, pushing further into the combustible wild, state firefighting has become a billion-dollar enterprise.
Now, with the state continuing to lurch from one fiscal crisis to another, Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature are pushing back.
They are requiring rural homeowners who rely on state firefighters to pay a $150 annual fee for fire-prevention services. Lawmakers are mulling over whether to revive proposed land-use restrictions that were killed just three years ago, after fierce objections from developers and local officials. And, Brown has directed the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to study how the state manages and pays for fires in those zones — and whether local governments should shoulder more of that responsibility.
Brown has said that the cash-strapped state can no longer afford the entire cost of battling blazes in fire-prone areas. The new fee could raise as much as $200 million a year from the more than 846,000 homeowners who live within more than 31 million acres of “state responsibility areas,” where Cal Fire is the primary responder.
A spokesman for the governor said the levy will “ensure that landowners in these areas that receive a disproportionate benefit from Cal Fire’s services pay an appropriate portion of the state’s wildland firefighting costs.”
Experts say the fire fee, if it survives threatened court challenges from taxpayer groups, marks a significant, if small, shift in California’s approach to wildland development. Still, better management of growth in fire-hazard regions, they said, will take stronger planning measures, including mandating that counties have sufficient fire protection before approving new construction.
For millions of Californians, the pull of nature is irresistible.
After the Cedar fire turned sun-drenched San Diego Country Estates into a moonscape in 2003, homeowner Stephen Brown didn’t think twice. He hired an architect to rebuild his Mexican-style house in rural Ramona, in the foothills of the Cuyamaca Mountains on the edge of the Cleveland National Forest.
“You gotta do what you gotta do,” said Brown, a financial planner. “It was my home.”
The last two administrations were frustrated in their efforts to rein in firefighting costs. In 2003, then-Gov. Gray Davis signed a bill imposing a fire-protection fee on landowners in state responsibility areas, a move the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office had recommended a decade earlier. But in the face of legal challenges, the Legislature repealed the law before it took effect.
In Southern California alone, the U.S. Forest Service estimates that roughly 189,000 homes were constructed in fire-prone areas from 2003 to 2007, at the height of the last real estate boom. In response, Cal Fire developed a series of maps to classify fire hazard risks up and down the state, soliciting local input.
At a meeting in Riverside County in 2007, Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute, a conservation group, suggested to fire officials that “no-build” zones be created in the most dangerous areas. His remark, he said, was met with silence.
“There are certain areas you just shouldn’t build in. They are going to burn no matter what,” Halsey said. “But the political will to prevent that just isn’t there.”
During the past decade, Cal Fire became the primary responder for tens of thousands of additional homes in developed wildlands, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. The agency’s budget tripled, from $415 million to more than $1.2 billion.
To help pay for the escalating costs, then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger proposed in 2008 that a fire fee be tacked onto all Californians’ insurance bills. The Legislature rejected the measure, in part because many lawmakers considered it a tax. A measure that would have imposed a $50 fee on residences in areas protected by Cal Fire died as well, when local governments fought it.
Land-use measures didn’t fare any better. Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have tightened building restrictions in fire-prone areas. The California Chamber of Commerce had labeled it a “job killer.”
The measure would have driven up development costs by requiring that new subdivisions have two access roads and adequate water pressure and fire protection.
“The building and development community would prefer to have as little cost as possible and local decision-makers would prefer not to think about it, either,” said former Assemblyman Dave Jones, who wrote the bill and is now the state’s insurance commissioner.
Likewise, taxpayers in some of the state’s most fire-prone regions have resisted paying for fire services. In San Diego, which bore the brunt of the deadly Cedar fire in 2003 and Witch fire in 2007, residents have repeatedly rejected measures that would have increased taxes to pay for more firefighters and upgraded equipment.
Max Moritz, founder of the UC Berkeley Center for Fire Research and Outreach, helped Cal Fire develop statewide fire-risk maps. He said policymakers fight not just an aversion to taxes but the idea that fire is a manageable threat.
“We have this mentality that we can fight fires,” he said. “Instead, we could learn from how we have planned and zoned around other natural hazards: floods, earthquakes, landslides. We don’t have any way to sustainably coexist with fire.”
When Brown took office, he sought to change attitudes.
He proposed an ambitious realignment of state services, including a shift of all firefighting and medical response duties to local governments in areas where Cal Fire has been serving as primary responder. The services, he said, are “more appropriately provided by local jurisdictions which have approved development in these areas.”
Local communities were outraged. Before long, the administration jettisoned the firefighting proposal, saying that it had overestimated the state’s savings. Instead, the Legislature pursued the homeowner fee. Signing the fee into law last week,Brown invoked what he called the “beneficiary pays principle.”
Some lawmakers said the measure caused them to consider introducing land-use restrictions next year.
The fee “is a step in the right direction, but it’s far from solving the whole problem,” said state Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego), author of the 2008 measure. She said the state could establish stronger fire protection standards for local jurisdictions that want state emergency response funds.
As taxpayer groups prepare to fight the fee in court — they argue it is really a tax and should not have passed the Legislature without a two-thirds vote — homeowners like Steven Harkey are enraged. He lives on a bluff in rural Ramona and already pays a local fire fee.
When the Cedar fire charged toward his property in 2003, he fought the flames himself. He doused his roof with swimming-pool water to extinguish the baseball-sized embers.
“I know the danger up here,” he said. “That’s just what you live with.”
The new fee is an unfair levy on back-country homeowners, he said. “I pay enough in property taxes. They don’t have to hit me for more.”