Wildfires, they say, are getting worse.
Even as the Rim Fire scorches hundreds of square miles of forest just 75 miles east of here we debate whether allowing fires to burn naturally or aggressively attacking them is a better way to stop a repeat of such infernos.
Shouldn’t the real debate be our development patterns?
Wildfires per se haven’t gotten worse. It’s the damage they inflict that has skyrocketed. Just 165 years ago pioneers marveled at how wildfires in the Great Central Valley would burn for weeks and even months.
Even 60 years ago when fires swept through the Sierra most of the threatened structures were rustic cabins or the modest homes of lumber workers and those employed at mountain enterprises.
Today more upscale second homes, commuter neighborhoods, and resort communities are nestled under a canopy of combustible disaster with an abundance of nature’s natural kindling — scrub oaks and mesquite.
It’s kind of the norm for California. We build fairly modest to outrageously expensive homes on sea cliffs being undermined constantly by pounding ocean waves, on wind-swept steep hills covered with wild grass perfect for fast-moving fires and mudslides, straddling the backbone of some of the world’s most active and violent faults, on softly compacted Delta soil, and in a host of other places that would cause any self-respecting insurance actuary expert to have a massive coronary.
Flames and their movements in massive conflagrations such as the Rim Fire can be completely unpredictable given dynamics that create essentially their own weather system.
Still, there are things that can be done to reduce the potential of a home being caught up in a firestorm. Cal Fire calls it creating defensible space. While that may be wishful thinking at best when your home sits amid towering 70-foot pine match sticks, it isn’t when you look at areas in the Sierra foothills that have been urbanized without taking into account Mother Nature.
Such homes can be found from the upscale “suburbs” surrounding Folsom Lake south into the Sonora region. People build homes and don’t clear away scrub oaks or change natural landscaping in their yards that are essentially fire fuel eight to nine months out of the year.
It is hard to argue against those who opt to build in high-risk fire zones. Typically they pay the price through higher insurance premiums and funding local fire departments. But there are 825,000 homes statewide that are in no-man’s land. Or more precisely, they are provided fire protection by default by Cal Fire. They have either built in a location so remote or else owners have refused or failed to get their neighbors to organize and tax themselves for local fire protection.
Cal Fire spends $1.2 billion a year protecting such no-man’s land. Various fees on appropriate sources that benefit from their protection are assessed to cover much of the bill. But up until a year ago homeowners protected by Cal Fire were getting essentially a free ride. Some 825,000 property owners statewide have been assessed a $150 fee to help pay for ever increasing Cal Fire costs that are a function of more homes being built in highly fire prone areas.
A lot of people who are forced to pay the fee don’t like it because they say it is a tax. Fees are charged based on services provided.
There are 2,800 firefighters assigned to the Rim Fire. A large chunk of that are personnel assigned to protect structures and not fight the main fire. The tab for four firefighters protecting a home for 24 hours is a lot more than $150.
If folks like State Board of Equalization member George Runner who is riding the “fire-fee-is-a-tax” horse succeed in having the $150 fee jettisoned, they should be asked exactly who is going to pick up the tab.
If homeowners who build in such high risk areas aren’t willing to pay a legally justifiable fee or even a tax why should everyone else?
As Tuolumne County and Yosemite National Park burns, Runner has been staging town meetings to trash the fire fee by painting it as an illegal tax under California law.
Runner, like all politicians, is running 24/7 for office. Obviously, he wants to build a foundation with the anti-tax crowd. That’s OK. It’s a free country.
But if he succeeds in overturning the fee, then Cal Fire should no longer provide fire protection for structures where property owners aren’t contributing to the benefit they receive. In major infernos firefighters can be given a map of homes they will not be allowed to protect as they do in some fire districts in Southern states where property owners refuse to pay annual fees for protection because they view it as an unfair tax. Homes that then burn that didn’t pay the fee can be known as the side effect of the “George Runner Rule.” One shouldn’t expect government services for nothing.
Is this discriminatory simply because said property owners pay state taxes in other ways? No. Folks in cities and urban areas pay state taxes as well but they also pay either special district or city taxes that provide for their fire protection.
The end goal of Runner’s efforts is essentially to give 825,000 California homeowners a free ride.
If he prevails, they can rely on firefighters who battle flames for free.
This column is the opinion of Dennis Wyatt and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Journal or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or 209-249-3519.