As taxpayers across the country cover the multimillion-dollar costs of protecting private residences from wildfires, subsidizing people who choose to live near combustible wildlands, California has begun to try to shift more of those costs to the homeowners.
In 2003, the California Legislature passed -- but then quickly repealed -- a bill that would have allowed Calfire, the state's wildland firefighting agency, to collect an annual fee from each of the homes it protects. This year, faced with a major shortfall in the state's general fund, the Legislature finally gave the state tax board authority to collect a fee from the roughly 850,000 homes in Calfire's "state responsibility area." (Firefighting duties in California are divided into three roughly 31-million-acre chunks covered by Calfire, the federal government and local fire departments.)
"The state has long been looking for a stable funding position for emergency response," says Janet Upton, Calfire's deputy director of communications. "I think (the need) is just magnified, given the economy right now."
A preliminary $90-per-year fee has been approved. Subtracting the administration costs, that could give Calfire about $69.5 million annually -- nearly 40 percent of what the state has spent, on average, fighting wildfires each year over the past decade. Considering that $90 is about the cost of a pair of fire extinguishers, that would seem a small price to pay for the services of Calfire, which has such huge numbers of fire engines and crews that it's nicknamed "the Red Army."
But the new fee may run afoul of California's powerful taxpayers' rights advocates, who are threatening to fight it in court. "We believe this 'fee' is in fact a tax," says Kris Vosburgh, the director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, "and is therefore unconstitutional without a two-thirds vote of the Legislature" -- a requirement imposed by a 1978 ballot measure called Proposition 13.
No other state has passed similar fire-fee legislation, although some have authority to compel homeowners to reduce fire danger on their property; California, for instance, requires owners of houses built after 1991 to install fire-resistant roofing and clear nearby flammable brush. In Oregon, the state department of forestry can recover up to $100,000 in firefighting costs from homeowners if a blaze starts on their property and they haven't created a fuel break around their home. Meanwhile, the federal government has no method for directly charging homeowners for wildfire protection. In 2002, the U.S. Forest Service asked Congress for $20 million to test a radical new concept: Creating "fire easements" on high-risk homes. That way, the agency could let such houses burn without risking firefighters' lives and spending money in a possibly futile effort. However, that program was never funded.
Insurance companies also require homeowners to at least reduce the fire risk on property located in the so-called wildland-urban interface. State Farm, for instance, inspected nearly 32,000 properties in Arizona, New Mexico, Nevada, Colorado and Utah, and required many of the owners to mitigate wildfire hazards. But insurance companies still focus more on other risks such as hailstorms, which tend to cause higher losses overall.
Given climate change and the continuing development of wildfire-prone areas, government agencies in the future might have to spend several billion dollars a year defending those houses, according to Montana-based Headwaters Economics. "The risk is growing," says Carole Walker with the Rocky Mountain Insurance Information Association. "We absolutely have the potential for multibillion (dollar) mega-catastrophes from wildfire." Even if California's fee goes up in courtroom smoke due to Proposition 13, it likely won't be the last attempt to shift firefighting costs to those homeowners whose houses are most at risk.