Although it is still the month of April showers, California firefighters are already feeling the heat from the state’s skimpy rainy season and lawmakers are melting in the face of opposition to rural fire protection fees.
The state has suffered 680 wildfires this year, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire). That’s 200 more than average. Record-low rainfall across California has reduced mountain snowpack levels to 52% of normal and left the state parched.
State officials, as usual, have been campaigning hard for brush clearance by homeowners and touting the measures they are taking to prepare for the worst. One of the things they are not doing is collecting a fire prevention fee that was levied last year on a half-million, mostly rural owners of 825,488 structures on 31 million acres of “state responsibility area.” Cal Fire protects one-third of the state, while the rest of California is under the jurisdiction of cities or the U.S. Forest Service.
Collection of the State Responsibility Area (SRA) Fire Prevention Benefit Fee, which runs up to $150, was recently delayed while the lawmakers ponder substitute legislation. Petitions have been filed, with 87,000 signatures protesting the fee, and a lawsuit by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association is wending its way through the courts. The Jarvis group contends that the fee is actually a tax and should not have passed the Legislature without two-thirds approval.
The California State Association of Counties, California Professional Firefighters and the California Fire Chiefs Association also opposed the fee, some arguing that the state shouldn’t be leveling fees for services that will most likely be provided at the local level. Some critics claim that the new levy constitutes double-taxation for people who live in areas served by local fire districts—an estimated 95% of those who are being billed—although they will receive a $35 discount.
The state had hoped to pick up $89 million a year from the fee, with the money being used for brush clearance, arson investigations, emergency evacuation planning and other efforts to help prevent calamities. More than $75 million was collected last year.
Cal Fire responded to 5,800 wildfires that burned 140,000 acres last year, compared to 4,600 fires that charred 57,000 acres the year before.