A firefighter battles the Blue Cut wildfire burning near Cajon Pass, north of San Bernardino, California on Aug. 16, 2016. Fire officials say wildfires will continue to ravage California unless funds are dedicated to preventative efforts. (RINGO CHIU/AFP/Getty Images)
Wildfires continue to strain government resources throughout California, creating a vicious cycle of fires and land burdened with excess fuels, which leads to bigger fires.
Nobody knows that better than Steve Hawks. The nearly 30-year firefighter works out of a nondescript office building in Sacramento overseeing Cal Fire's Wildland Fire Prevention Engineering Program.
But this time of year, he wears another hat.
"Well, I guess in essence it kind of is a fire accountant," Hawks says with a laugh of his other role with Cal Fire.
The actual job title is Finance Section chief, and Hawks is one of six throughout the state. It's part of the Incident Command System that Cal Fire uses on major wildfires.
When Hawks is sent to a major fire as the Finance Section chief, it's his job to oversee a small team that handles all things money for the fire. That includes everything from equipment procurement like helicopters and bulldozers to personnel costs and workers' compensation claims. At the end of each day, his team puts together a finance package that gives a snapshot of how much it costs to fight the fire.
"Working in the Finance Section really gives you a different perspective," Hawks said. "What is shown typically on TV is the firefighting resources out on the line suppressing the fire and working on the fire, but it's a collaborative effort with all the people behind the scenes, including the Finance Section, to allow that to happen."
Most fires are relatively small -- less than 10 acres -- and funding to fight them comes from Cal Fire’s regular operating budget, which was squeezed under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, leading to cuts in things like the number of crew members on fire engines. But Cal Fire says those cuts have been restored. New investments made by Gov. Jerry Brown have increased its budget by almost 50 percent in the last five years.
Big fires -- the kind where Hawks would be dispatched -- are paid for out of the Emergency Wildland Fire Suppression Fund. Often referred to as the Emergency Fund, it was established decades ago specifically to cover the extraordinary costs associated with fighting catastrophic fires.
In just three months, Cal Fire has spent more than $250 million of its $426.9 million emergency fund for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, intended to last until next June. If it runs out, Cal Fire can ask for additional funds from the state’s more than $1.4 billion budget reserve.
But that solves only part of the problem.
About a third of California is federal land, where fire response and prevention fall mostly to the U.S. Forest Service. It doesn't have an emergency fund. All Forest Service fire funds come from its base operating budget, so when firefighting costs shoot skyward as they have over the last several years, resources have to be cribbed from other budget lines, like fire prevention and forest health, in a system called "fire borrowing."
"So real work on the ground to reduce the intensity of fires isn't getting done or is being delayed," says Ken Pimlott, the director of Cal Fire. "It really just further exacerbates the intensity of fires because we can't get on the federal ground in particular to get the fuels treated."
Pimlott was in Washington, D.C., last month lobbying to give the Forest Service its own version of California's Emergency Fund, so it can keep up with rising firefighting costs without having to raid its other programs.
The Forest Service has already spent a record-breaking $2 billion-plus on fire suppression this year, and it estimates that it will have to transfer more than a half-billion dollars from other Forest Service programs to cover fire response for the year.
Since 2011, Cal Fire's prevention and forest health programs have been funded by a fee on homeowners who live on lands where firefighting falls mainly to the state, and starting this year, they'll be funded by revenues from California’s cap-and-trade program, in which industry pays for the right to produce greenhouse gases (the link being that burning of fossil fuels is deemed a contributor to global warming and hence to more intense wildfires).
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, who oversees the Forest Service, has repeatedly spoken out about the need for Congress to establish a dedicated reserve funding source for wildfires similar to what exists for other natural disasters like hurricanes.
"This whole department at USDA is going to fight hard to communicate to Congress and the administration that we need permanent fire funding and stop this fire borrowing once and for all," Perdue said at an event last month to introduce new Forest Service Chief Tony Tooke.
California Sen. Dianne Feinstein is a co-sponsor of the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act, which was introduced last month and would create the kind of emergency fund that could prevent the necessity of fire borrowing. Pimlott says there's renewed interest in Washington to tackle the issue this year.
"I'm certainly hopeful that this will be the year that it gets moved across the finish line," he says.
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