Firefighters Didn't Fare Well in Recent Budget

As the anniversary of the worst wildfire in Southern California history approaches, here's a review of the way California's firefighting budget fared in Sacramento. The Governor had proposed more than $100 million to bolster the state's firefighting resources. He also pushed for an insurance fee that would have added money to the pot. He got neither. The Governor also vetoed a bill that would have curtailed development in fire-prone areas. KPCC's state capitol reporter Julie Small examines what it all means for California.

Julie Small: The $100 million Governor Schwarzenegger proposed would have allowed the state's firefighting agency, Cal Fire, to deploy four firefighters on every engine. That's one of the main recommendations of a blue ribbon fire prevention task force formed after the deadly blazes five years ago. State fire chief Ruben Grijalva says crews can still mobilize at that strength with emergency funding if a major incident occurs.

Ruben Grijalva: I'm pretty comfortable that we're as prepared as we can possibly can be for the upcoming possibility of Santa Ana winds conditions in Southern California, in October and November.

Small: Grijalva says California's also improved its relations with the military. The state was able to use some National Guard firefighting equipment in northern California earlier this year. That said, Grijalva still needs to purchase helicopters that can fly at night, and new fire engines, too.

Grijalva: Y'know, it's an aging fleet. I mean, that was the reason we were asking for the funding, that was the reason the governor was pushing for it in the emergency response initiative. And so, while it's not included in the current fiscal year, it's certainly something that's still necessary in future years.

Small: An insurance fee the governor proposed to increase firefighting resources also died in the budget battle. The only good news was that the operating budget for firefighting made it through the process unscathed. Carroll Wills with the California Professional Firefighters says even that doesn't give him reason to relax.

Carroll Wills: The bottom line is that we are where we were in terms of resources, but the problem is still there, and the problem continues to grow. And ultimately, the reckoning will be at hand.

Small: Wills says California can't go on forever applying the same old resources to new and deadlier fires.

Wills: The wildfires in California are bigger, they're hotter, and they're more destructive as the air gets dryer, the ground gets dryer, the fuel becomes dryer, and the winds blow ever hotter.

Small: Wills says the defeat of a bill that would have restricted local developers from building in fire-prone areas didn't help. He adds that cities and counties can't keep green-lighting development in areas without adequate firefighting staff and equipment. And Wills hopes that all Californians will learn to appreciate that there are just some places in which no one should build.

Wills: It's easy to say oh, well, we'll just clear around the home, or we'll just make sure we use the right equipment, or right material, when we build our new construction. But in some cases, no amount of fire safe building material or defensible space is going to protect a home, because the fires are too massive, and too hot.

Small: Wills says the more development pushes in to wilderness areas, the more firefighting costs will climb. That's a problem for California, especially now. H.D. Palmer is with the governor's Department of Finance.

H.D. Palmer: Two things are a virtual lock going forward this year: one, we're going to face fiscal pressures from the ongoing slow down in the state and the national economy. And number two, we are certainly going to have additional and significant costs associated with fighting wildfires in this state.

Small: Palmer says the state quickly burned through this year's $80 million emergency fund. California's spent $271 million on firefighting since July. To pay for that, the state dips into cash reserves.

Palmer says that's the main reason Schwarzenegger struck an additional $500 million from the budget. As it is, the cash reserve stands at close to one-and-three-quarters of a billion dollars. That may sound like a lot of money, but last year, California spent half a billion dollars battling fires.