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California's Firefighting Agency Is Running Out of Money

Ken Pimlott, director of the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said in a letter to legislators that the agency is down to its last $11 million after spending $432 million in July and August alone. The budget year doesn't end until June 30, 2019.

By Melody Gutierrez and Sarah Ravani

California's firefighting agency is running out of money in the midst of a disastrous and deadly fire season and needs another $234 million to make it through the middle of next year, officials said Thursday.

The request came as a new round of major wildfires erupted around the state, including a blaze near the Sacramento River in Shasta County that grew to 22,000 acres Thursday night, forcing mandatory evacuations as the flames threatened structures.

Ken Pimlott, director of the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or Cal Fire, said in a letter to legislators that the agency is down to its last $11 million after spending $432 million in July and August alone. The budget year doesn't end until June 30, 2019.

The request means the state will probably dip into budget reserves for the eighth time in 10 years to cover the cost of putting out wildfires. This is the earliest Cal Fire has ever had to ask the state for more money.

Pimlott wrote in the letter Thursday that "climate change-driven extreme weather conditions continue to drive intense and large fires," leaving the agency short on cash.

Last year, the state budgeted $427 million. The fires in the North Bay and elsewhere in October, and then in Southern California in December, forced the state, local governments and the federal government to come up with another $470 million to cover costs.

H.D. Palmer, spokesman for the state Department of Finance, said Cal Fire's request shows the wisdom of Gov. Jerry Brown's push to increase the state's budget reserves. This year's state spending plan included an additional $2.2 billion for unexpected expenses like wildfires and floods.

Pimlott said given new wildfires in recent days, he hopes the state will approve the emergency funding "as soon as possible."

Brown's office can dip into the emergency funding after notifying legislative fiscal committees.

Government firefighting budgets will be further taxed by the Delta Fire in Shasta County near Interstate 5 just north of Lakehead. Rough terrain made it difficult to contain the 300-foot flames, and low humidity spread the blaze by rates of 1 mph as it consumed mixed conifer and timber with no recent fire history, the U.S. Forest Service said.

The agency said the blaze was caused by someone, but did not provide further details.

The Shasta County Sheriff's Office issued mandatory evacuations for residents along I-5 just north of Lamoine to the Shasta-Siskiyou county line.

Elsewhere in California, the North Fire at the Emigrant Gap area of Tahoe National Forest near Interstate 80 was 17 percent contained and grew by nearly 200 acres to 1,274 acres on Thursday.

(c)2018 the San Francisco Chronicle

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