Article Last Updated: 02/01/2008 12:39:37 AM
When a devastating series of wind-driven wildfires
ripped last fall through Southern California,
manpower ran short and equipment even shorter.
In the end, more than 2,000 homes were destroyed.
And the vast acres of blackened ruins drew the
spotlight to an overextended state firefighting
system that needs emergency help of its own,
especially as a growing number of homes are built in
Faced with a $14.5 billion state deficit, Gov.
Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed a surcharge on
property insurance bills across-the-board to pay for
But the plan raises questions over who should pay
to fight wildfires - the Malibu homeowner who
eagerly rebuilds on a piece of scorched paradise or
the general population, which doesn't necessarily
have the luxury of a forested backyard and an ocean
"I don't think it's reasonable for the
people who live in urban areas to have to fund the
additional money for the people who live in those
areas," said Garth Carlson, a member of the
Reseda Neighborhood Council, expressing his personal
"You're taking a risk living in the
mountains around Malibu. Should I pay for
In his State of the State address last month,
Schwarzenegger proposed a 1.25 percent tax on
property insurance bills - about $10 to $12 per
California homeowner - that would generate about
$125 million a year for the state Department of
Forestry and Fire Protection.
"It amounts to
less than a dollar a month," said Aaron McLear,
the governor's press secretary.
"The point is, when there's a fire and the
state responds, all taxpayers pay for that.
Taxpayers would pay less, no matter where you live,
if there are more resources and consequently less
The fee would provide the state agency, better
known as Cal Fire, with 121 new engines, 11 more
helicopters and a collection of global positioning
systems to track fires and better coordinate
resource assignments and evacuations.
During fire season, the new revenue would pay to
increase from three to four the number of state
firefighters per engine.
Year-round "surge" engines would be
placed at municipal departments statewide, where
local agencies would maintain them, use them for
backup and agree to man them for mutual aid when
"It would offer more protection with
additional personnel and more equipment," Cal
Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. "We would
be better able to respond to emergencies quickly.
"If there's a fire and we have a quick
response, we keep it smaller. We don't have a
Cal Fire has jurisdiction over 31million acres of
wilderness, and contracts with 150 local
governments, primarily smaller, rural cities and
counties. The department also backs up municipal
fire systems statewide, not only to fight brush
fires, but in earthquakes, floods, mudslides and
other emergencies, Berlant said.
Who should pay?
Former Los Angeles Councilwoman Ruth Gallanter
said urban residents have been subsidizing hillside
residents for decades for public services from fire
protection to sewage systems.
The problem now is that once-remote hillside
homes are now within tracts of 300 houses, all in
the natural path of a brush fire.
"The problem with subsidizing services for
outlying hillside areas - building in flood plains
is the same issue - the problem with doing that is
that it makes it easier to develop in those areas,
which are the most expensive to serve," she
The solution is to stop building in fire-prone
areas, but that doesn't help the existing situation,
"In order to craft a really fair solution,
there has to be a fair way to apportion the cost
somehow in proportion to the risk," Gallanter
"But it's not clear who should pick up the
payment for extra risk. Should it be the homeowner
who might have lived there for years and maybe not
be as wealthy as some neighbors - or the local
government who allowed the risk?"
Insurance company executives were briefed on the
idea in early January, but the industry has yet to
take a stand, said Greg Sherlock, a spokesman for
State Farm Insurance, the largest property insurer
in the state.
But county Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman is
intrigued by governor's proposal and thinks it
deserves serious consideration.
"Is this approach without flaws? Is there a
better way to do it, to tweak it?" Freeman
said. "We need to dialogue. How will it be
used? Who pays for it? Who doesn't? Those are the
questions we have to talk about, to answer."
Charlotte Laws is on the Valley Glen Neighborhood
Council. She said she hasn't studied the governor's
proposal but would tend to favor a nominal fee to
help ensure the state is better prepared for
"Nobody likes taxes to be raised, but it's
possible that the additional money would help us be
better prepared," Laws said.
"We do have residents living in areas that
are high fire danger. And we all pay for things we
don't use. We all pay for public schools even if we
don't have kids. You can make that argument all day
Last fall was marked by at least a dozen major
brush fires from Lake Tahoe to San Diego, with five
devastating blazes in Malibu and the Santa Clarita
Flames from October's 58,401-acre Ranch Fire came
up to Scott Muir's home in Castaic's Hasley Canyon.
Having grown up in Malibu, he knew the drill and he
saved his house.
Per county requirement, he had cleared brush
around his property and when his canyon was
evacuated he stayed behind with a friend, equipped
with a pool pump and hose to douse any flames.
He said he opposes a statewide fire fee but
wouldn't mind the surcharge if the money went to
local fire departments.
"I wouldn't mind an extra $12 on my policy,
but every time the government starts a new tax, they
end up spending it on something else," he said.
"I think the local fire departments would
manage it better."
Muir and others don't question the fairness so
much of urban areas subsidizing fire-prone areas as
they do Los Angeles County residents helping other
Los Angeles County, he said, proved superior
compared to Orange and San Diego counties in the
most recent spate of fires, primarily because of
diligent brush clearance enforcement.
"I do live in a high fire zone, and the fire
came to my front door," he said. "But I
clear my property every year - if you don't, the
county will do it for you and charge you two or
three thousand dollars.
"You didn't see that in San Diego where they
lost all those homes."
And Gallanter adds that Los Angeles area
residents have taxed themselves in both the city and
county to enhance fire protection while some
neighboring counties have not.
The state alone spent $291 million of the total
$1 billion cost of battling flames last fall.
Manpower was stretched and resources were thin, with
engines and aircraft shifted from fire to fire as
erratic winds spread flames through neighborhoods.
"That particular day I felt the whole world
was on fire," Freeman said of Oct. 21, the
start of the first autumn firestorm.
Legislature will decide
The fee is within the governor's proposed budget,
now before the state Legislature. Besides the issue
of equity, it's sure to face a skirmish over whether
fire "fee" is just a more palatable way of
Not surprising, opposition comes from the Howard
Jarvis Taxpayers Association.
"It's a tax; it is not a fee for service. It
is not proportionate to the benefits derived,"
said association President Jon Coupal.
The fee would overwhelmingly benefit residents of
tony hillside communities over those in the middle
of the suburban flatlands, Coupal said. It also
would benefit those who own vast vacant acreage yet
pay no insurance.
"A guy who owns a 10-acre parcel in the
forest but has made no improvements - he doesn't
carry any insurance, but very likely (Cal Fire) is
putting out a fire on his property," he said.
But Bill Maile, an aide to the governor, said the
proposed fee passes the test of the independent
Legislative Analyst's Office.
"The money gained from the fee goes for the
specific purpose of fighting fires and by definition
of the legislative analyst, it is a fee," Maile
Technical - and territorial - arguments aside,
something must be done, Chief Freeman said. There's
nothing more frustrating for firefighters and more
heartbreaking for residents than knowing flames are
charging toward homes on too many fronts for crews
More firefighters and more resources are needed,
particularly as development moves toward hillside
areas, he said.
"If we step back and see who's footing the
bill that isn't covered by insurance, I think you'll
find it ultimately comes back to the taxpayer,"
Residents, he said, need to look at the big
picture because boundaries are erased in emergencies
and statewide resources are key.
"I don't live in Malibu. I don't want to
live in Malibu," Freeman said. "But the
reality is if we have an earthquake and my
neighborhood is cut off in Whittier, I know the fire
engines from Santa Clarita or Rancho Cucamonga or
Cal Fire are going to be there."