Environment & Science

California exhausts initial firefighting budget

In this file photo, an air tanker drops Phos-Chek fire retardant on a hillside ahead of the King Fire on Sept. 17, 2014 in Pollock Pines, Calif.
In this file photo, an air tanker drops Phos-Chek fire retardant on a hillside ahead of the King Fire on Sept. 17, 2014 in Pollock Pines, Calif.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

California has exhausted its initial firefighting budget just three months into its fiscal year, Gov. Jerry Brown's administration said Monday, requiring the drought-plagued state to shift $70 million from a reserve fund as it enters what is traditionally the worst of its fire season.

The Department of Finance notified legislative budget writers on Monday that the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has spent the $209 million budgeted this fiscal year to fight wildfires.

The administration is transferring the additional money from its $449 million special fund for economic uncertainties.

Capital Public Radio reports that it's not unusual for the state to exceed its emergency firefighting budget:

Last year the state had to use about $70 million in reserves. The year before California exceeded its budget by nearly $148 million. However this [is the] fastest the state has run through its budget within the last five years. The Department of Finance stresses all fires will continue to be fought, regardless of the cost.

The move is necessary as California battles "one of its worst fire seasons in recent memory," Keely Bosler, the finance department's chief deputy director said in the letter to lawmakers.

So far this year, the department has responded to nearly 5,000 fires, about 1,200 more than average through the first nine months of the calendar year, Bosler wrote.

The action comes days after Brown declared emergencies for the blaze burning in El Dorado and Placer counties and the fire in Siskiyou County along the Oregon border. It follows declarations for other fires in 11 counties in early August.

The worst may be yet to come, with the first of Southern California's hot, dry Santa Ana winds expected later this week.

"It's already been a very active and very busy fire season. The Santa Ana and fall season just elevates that risk even more," CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. "Historically, the fall months are when we experience our largest, most damaging wildfires."

Rain last week did much to help firefighters corral current wildfires in Northern California, but it wasn't enough to end the fire season particularly with warmer, drier conditions returning this week, Berlant said.

The state's costs for its four most expensive fires alone have exceeded the entire emergency fund. However, much of the money will eventually be reimbursed by the federal government, Berlant said.

The fire in El Dorado and Placer counties, which is being fought jointly by state and federal firefighters, has cost the state $31 million to date. A wildfire in Mendocino County cost the state $41.5 million in July. Shasta County's Eiler Fire cost $26.6 million in August, and the Bully Fire in Shasta County in July cost the state $24 million.