Bruce Maiman: Plenty of blame to go around for California’s wildfire problem

08/12/2014 12:00 AM

08/11/2014 8:29 PM

This began as a column about “government on the cheap,” our unwillingness to pay for critical government services. Then it got complicated.

Mike Bissell, a radio colleague, lives about a mile above the Bear River Campground near Colfax. Wildfires are a constant concern.

Early this year, Bissell and his neighbors called various agencies wondering when the county would clear thick, dry roadside brush. It finally happened in July, far later than usual. Why? Budget shortfalls. “The county told us they only had four mowing machines and three of them were broken,” Bissell said.

Given the severe drought conditions, residents also requested campfire restrictions in campgrounds. They got signs and police tape posting bans. Visitors ignored them. “Unfortunately,” said Bissell, “the campground isn’t well patrolled by law enforcement.”

“There used to be an on-site host living in a modular home just above the campground,” said Gene Mapa, Bissell’s neighbor. The building is also gone.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service entered this year’s fire season with only three modern firefighting air tankers. The rest are aging, retired military aircraft – costly to maintain, dangerous to fly and shrinking in number. Over the last decade, the fleet fell from 47 to just 12, the Arizona Republic reported.

“Money is a hugely limiting factor when you consider the size of our county and the scope of the problem,” said John McEldowney of Placer County’s Office of Emergency Services. “Getting everything where we’d like to be is almost a bridge too far.”

Placer residents can pay the county $40 an hour to clear property under what’s called a “Chipper Program,” but it actually costs the county $80 an hour to do it, McEldowney told me. Would residents pay that much, knowing fire damage would cost far more?

Last year, voters rejected a proposal to temporarily increase a property tax that would have saved a fire-protection district responsible for some 90 square miles of southern Nevada County.

Ironically, such decisions can result in costlier homeowner’s insurance. “Insurers respond to government’s ability to act,” said Lloyd Lawson, a Farmers Insurance agent in Meadow Vista. “If government is unable to provide effective service, it absolutely impacts rates,” meaning higher premiums and even dropped coverage.

“Farmers canceled me,” Bissell said. “They just don’t want to write this area anymore because their exposure to risk is too high and no longer cost-effective.” He luckily found coverage elsewhere.

What about that state fire-prevention fee? Rural Placer County residents have been paying around $4 million annually since its implementation in 2011, but according to McEldowney, “no county has seen any of their money. It goes straight to Sacramento and so far, we haven’t seen it come back into the county.”

Wait, didn’t the Legislature tell us we have a budget surplus?

Caltrans maintains state highways and freeway shoulders, but a spokesman recently told the Auburn Journal that “we’re stretched thin.”

Really? Didn’t Caltrans claim it saved boatloads of money buying cheap Chinese steel for a bridge whose structural integrity remains in doubt?

No wonder citizens resent new taxes, even for fire prevention. However, isn’t one consequence of living in high-risk areas such as fire zones and floodplains that resident have to assume costs associated with mitigating that risk? If not, who should pay?

If you’re concerned about how your taxes are being used, can’t you do what Bissell or Mapa did? They contacted their county supervisor – Jennifer Montgomery, in this case – whose response in getting roadside brush cleared earned her an “A-plus” from Mapa. That’s how they got their money’s worth out of government.

Mapa says he doesn’t mind paying the fire fee. “What bothers me,” he said, “are the outsiders” – visiting city residents who act irresponsibly. YubaNet.com, a go-to source for fire-related matters in the Sierra foothills, is filled with examples of jaw-dropping behavior, including illegal campfires and even a gas can ignited and tossed into the Yuba River.

Take 32-year-old Keith Emerald, now charged with ignoring fire restrictions with a campfire that sparked last year’s 250,000-acre Rim Fire, the third-largest wildfire in state history. He lives in the tiny Sierra foothills town of Columbia. He should know better, right? Yet he has a previous charge for camping in a restricted part of Yosemite.

You see where we are here? The scope of this problem isn’t just square miles and limited resources, but a broad swath of dysfunction, mistrust, selfishness and pure stupidity that makes you throw up your hands.

Frankly, it’s a minor miracle the state hasn’t burned to the ground already.

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