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Rising cost of fighting wildfires is overwhelming the state’s firefighting budget

Slammed by the Wine Country infernos of October and this week’s devastating Southern California firestorm, the state’s firefighting agency has blown through its budget for battling major brush fires just six months into the fiscal year.
As of Wednesday, Dec. 6, CalFire had incurred expenses totaling $490.3 million, well more than the $426.9 million budgeted for fiscal 2017-18 to put out large wildfires, said Scott McLean, a spokesman for CalFire in Sacramento.
And McLean said the bills have yet to come in for the giant blazes raging across Southern California.
H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance, said that doesn’t mean CalFire has run out of cash.
Palmer said the state has the ability to lean on a $1.4 billion reserve earmarked for all types of emergencies, including fires.
“That doesn’t mean there isn’t money to fight fires,” Palmer said in a telephone interview. “There has not been, there is not and there will never be a situation where the state budget impedes the ability of CalFire to deploy immediately all of the equipment and personnel that are needed to fight wildland fires.”
However, Palmer said officials will need to ask the Legislature to increase the $426.9 million account.
That’s the budget for something called the Emergency Wildland Fire Protection Fund, commonly referred to as the emergency fund, he said. It’s not the entire state firefighting budget. Palmer said CalFire has $1.8 billion budgeted overall this year for fighting fires of all sizes and types. And that total includes what’s in the emergency fund.
He said the emergency fund is reserved for large wildfires such as those raging across Southern California.

Hard to budget for Mother Nature
It’s not difficult to understand what happened. In the past five months, California has experienced some of the deadliest and most destructive fires in its modern history.
A firestorm of multiple blazes killed 44 people as they tore across Northern California’s Wine Country in October, generating $9 billion in property loss claims, the state Department of Insurance reported this week.
For the calendar year 2017 through Dec. 3, CalFire reported 6,762 fires and 505,391 acres burned statewide. That’s about 2,000 more fires than the average for the past five years, for this point in the season, and more than twice the average acreage: 202,696.
And while it is early in the state budget year — which runs July 1 to June 30 — it is not unusual for CalFire to exceed its budget for fighting large wildfires.
In nine of the past 10 years, firefighting bills have exceeded budget, according to Department of Finance statistics. In some years, CalFire overspent its original budget by hundreds of millions.
“That’s a testament to a couple of things,” Palmer said. “No. 1, fire season is now year-round in California. And. No. 2, as Gov. Brown has indicated, and have others, this is one manifestation of climate change that is affecting the state.”
It hasn’t helped that much of the last decade California was under the grip of a stubborn drought. And, following last winter’s wet season, this rainy season is off to yet another bone-dry start.
“One thing that is extremely difficult to budget for is Mother Nature,” Palmer said.
He said the problem is not that the state failed to budget realistically for wildfire suppression — officials base budgeting on what occurs the previous five years. It’s that the trend keeps surging upward.
“There have been more of these catastrophic fires, and as a result more costs to contain them,” he said.
CalFire spokesman Daniel Berlant said, “It almost seems like every year is a record year.”
Washington to the rescue?
California may get some help from the federal government.
Brandi Richard, a spokeswoman for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said FEMA on Tuesday, Dec. 5, issued a Fire Management Assistance Grant declaration for the Thomas fire in Ventura County and the Creek and Rye fires in Los Angeles County. The agency added the Skirball fire on Wednesday, Dec. 6, she said.
That declaration authorizes the use of federal funds to later reimburse 75 percent of eligible firefighting costs, Richard said.
She said eligible costs are staffing, equipment, supplies and meals for the firefighters, among other things.
Feds exceeded budget, too
It’s been a challenging year for national forests, too. And the U.S. Forest Service exceeded its firefighting budget in the recently completed federal fiscal year.
Stanton Florea, a spokesman for the Forest Service in Vallejo, said the total acreage burned in California forests so far this calendar year just hit 500,000.
“That’s well above average,” Florea said. “But it’s not unprecedented. It’s not record-setting by any means.”
As recently as 2008, more than 1 million acres burned, he said.
As for spending, Jennifer Jones, a Forest Service spokeswoman in Washington, D.C., said the agency incurred $2.4 billion in firefighting expenses nationwide for the federal fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The budget? Approximately $1.6 billion, she said.
Statistics weren’t available for the current budget year, barely two months old, she said.
Jones said, however, that costs have been increasing by about $100 million per year.
“We project that, by 2021, 67 percent of our budget will be requested for fire preparedness and suppression,” she said in an email, adding that firefighting currently accounts for 57 percent.
Source: Oc Register

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