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How Much Are California’s Wildfire Efforts Costing Taxpayers?

The state has already spent $200 million over its emergency fund budget for the entire fiscal year that started in July. While some of the bill will be paid by state agencies, taxpayer dollars will also be used.

(TNS) — As large wildfires continue to blaze and threaten Northern California, the price to put them out continues to skyrocket. New data shows California is spending more and more each year from an emergency fund set aside for large fires.

According to H.D. Palmer, the state Department of Finance's deputy director, Cal Fire estimates the current emergency fund expenditures are nearly $200 million over its budgeted amount for this fiscal year ( July 2021 to July 2022).

The emergency fund budget, which was approved in July of this fiscal year, includes $604.2 million to support Cal Fire's emergency fire suppression activities. But Palmer said as of Sept. 17, Cal Fire estimated it had already spent $849.1 million.

"Even though that's the current estimate for expenses, the cash hasn't gone out the door for that yet and because we've got more bills than we've got budgeted, that doesn't mean that we're not able to fight wildfires now because of that," Palmer said. "There's always been and there always will be more than adequate cash on hand to be able to ... deploy those resources immediately to combat these wildfires."

What is The Emergency Fund, How Are Taxpayers Involved?

The emergency fund is derived from the state general fund revenue, which is made up of three principle sources of taxes including personal income tax, sales tax and corporation tax.

The emergency wildland fire suppression fund, or emergency fund for short, is used to tackle wildfires that cannot be put out through an initial attack. The amount budgeted each year is separate from Cal Fire's general budget and is estimated based on a drought-adjusted five-year average, which is the five highest years of expenditures within the last 10 years.

The emergency fund pays for everything that's assigned to the wildland incident, including personnel, overtime, equipment, aircraft, logistical needs, fuel, food and everything that's used to support the firefighters. An incident command post or fire camps are also built on fairgrounds to support thousands of first responders during large wildfires.

When a blaze is deemed a large wildfire, one of the groups deployed to the incident command center by Cal Fire is one of the six Cal Fire Incident Management Teams. In some instances, all six teams can be deployed at the same time.

Each team is composed of 40 people and then further broken down into five functions, including operations, planning, finance, logistics and command.

"We as the Incident Management Team serve as like this all-encompassing team that just comes in and takes over every facet of the fire," said Connie Guerrero, a Cal Fire prevention specialist and the ordering manager of the logistics sector within the fifth Cal Fire Incident Management Team.

The Cal Fire Incident Management Team is responsible for tallying up the costs associated with that particular wildfire, regardless of if the fire is blazing on state or federal land. Once the costs are totaled, there's then a mechanism by which the state and the federal government portion the cost to determine what will be appropriately billed to the state and what will be billed to the federal government.

In the beginning, the emergency fund is used to immediately start containing the blaze. According to Guerrero, if Cal Fire is unable to identify an entity responsible for the origin of the fire, it remains docked from the emergency fund.

Cal Fire also may qualify for a Fire Management Assistance Grant in the case that the fire is a threat to lives and improved property, there's a potential for major economic impact and there are high fire danger conditions. In that case, 75 percent of the funds are reimbursed and the state is responsible for the other 25 percent.

Not only are taxpayers involved in the cost of fighting large wildfires, but the state has also invested taxpayer dollars in the adoption of a $1.5 billion Wildfire and Forest Resilience Package that passed this year to mitigate future significant wildfires, according to Palmer.

This includes, but is not limited to, funding to create resilient wildland, support wildfire fuel breaks, advance science-based management and streamlined permitting and support community hardening, according to the most recent California state budget addendum.

"To the extent that we can take steps also using taxpayer dollars to mitigate the possibility of these substantial wildfires in the future through a variety of different activities, then we're going to be in a better position so hopefully we don't have to spend as much fighting these fires in future years," Palmer said.

More Acres Burned Means More Money Spent

So as fall approaches with its traditional intensified winds and the emergency fund is well over its 12-month budget only a month into the fiscal year, how will the state cover the overage?

When the expenditures go over the emergency fund's fiscal year's budget, the state taps into its special fund for economic uncertainties — which is about $4 billion used for various economic emergencies — to cover additional firefighting costs above and beyond what's in the emergency fund budget.

The Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, better known as Cal Fire, has projected an all-time high of $1.3 billion for the last fiscal year. California approved $373 million for its emergency fund, but the budget ended up being about $900 million short, according to a budget post from the State Legislative Analyst's Office.

"We [ Cal Fire] are very successful if you look at the totality number of incidents that we have and fires throughout California, how many that we're able to keep at 10 acres or less," said Jon Heggie, Cal Fire battalion chief of public information. "It's those fires that become well established, that become large, are the ones that are very challenging both to our resources and to the economics in California."

By the end of the year 2020, nearly 10,000 fires burned over 4.2 million acres, making 2020 the largest wildfire season recorded in California's modern history. So California had an unusually high price tag in response.

But it's also consistent with the trend of California spending more money to contain its large wildfires, a pattern that's continuing this year as approximately 7,000 fires have burned over an estimated 1.9 million acres of land, according to Cal Fire's 2021 incident archive.

"We're in an environment now that's been damaged due to lack of rain," Heggie said. "So we're getting these large destructive fires basically due to the change of our climate and environment."

According to Cal Fire's top 20 largest California wildfires list, which dates back to 1932, five of the state's 20 largest fires burned in 2020. Four of the largest wildfires burned this year — including the Dixie Fire — where Heggie saw first hand when the historical blaze made its big run into the Lake Tahoe Basin.

"Seeing the volatility of the timber and how it burned with such intensity and veracity was an extremely eye-opening for myself who's been in this for 30 years," Heggie said. "To see that the reality of these drought-stricken trees and landscape is just burning and ways we've never seen before."

California's climate has always been fire-prone, but the link between its changing climate and the ongoing pattern of the state's large wildfires is impossible to deny. So as Cal Fire prepares for the last leg of the wildfire season (October and November), California is bracing itself for what's traditionally the most destructive period of the season.

"Fire Fighting was a relatively contained season and it's gone beyond that and a great thing that has affected the spread of wildfires we believe is climate change," Palmer said.

(c)2021 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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