Putting out California’s wildfires, from the deadly inferno in Redding to the 46,000 acres burning near Yosemite, is costing more all the time.
More than 7,600 firefighters are battling nine major blazes across the state. Taxpayers pick up the tab for equipment, wages, food and other costs.
Here’s an explanation:
How does California pay to fight wildfires?
Through the state budget process, lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown allocate money into an emergency fund for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to fight large wildfires. The agency is responsible for protecting about 31 million acres of land, both public and private, in California.
If the state experiences a particularly intense fire season and costs exceed the emergency fund, known as the e-fund, the California Department of Finance can tap into budget reserves to cover any remaining needs. It’s one of the many reasons Brown has been careful to stash away money for economic uncertainties.
“There is not, never will be, a situation where the state budget would be an impediment to immediately going after these fires,” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the California Department of Finance.
Other agencies, such as the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services, pay some additional costs for wildfire response.
How much does fire suppression cost every year?
Costs have increased over the last decade as wildfires become more frequent and intense in California. The state looks at a five-year historical average to set e-fund allocations each year, Palmer said.
In 2008-2009, the e-fund initially received $69.1 million in funding for wildfires, for example. Cal Fire ended up spending $273.7 million that year.
A decade later the fund started with $426.9 million in 2017-18. Final costs are still being tallied, but the Department of Finance said it had to dip into reserves again.
Wildfire costs have gone over the e-fund budget in seven of the last 10 years.
So what’s happening this year?
Firefighting costs are at $114.7 million for 2018-19, which began on July 1, according to Cal Fire. The annual e-fund budget is $442.8 million for the year.
“That means in less than one month, the bill associated with wildfire is nearly one quarter the annual budgeted amount,” Palmer said.
“It speaks to what the governor has said about the influence of climate change and weather impacts in California. We don’t have traditional fire seasons. It’s a year-round thing here.”