Rising Costs of Emergency Response

Michele Steel
Orange County Supervisor (2nd District) and Former California State Board of Equalization Member

Tuesday’s 5.4 Chino Hills earthquake reminds us of the importance to prepare for emergencies and natural disasters. As the Orange County Register explains, “93% of Americans are not prepared for a major earthquake, fire or flood…it’s a good idea to put a kit together and make a plan.”

Everyone should heed this important advice, especially our state’s leaders. It may be unpleasant news for budget negotiators, but California must adequately account for the rising costs of emergency response in this year’s state budget. Moreover, state auditors need to find a way to reduce the state’s firefighting costs without jeopardizing public safety.

Wildfires have increased dramatically over the past decade, and so has the cost to taxpayers. The Los Angeles Times has an excellent five part series titled “Big Burn,” which examines the state’s recent increase in wildfires and response costs. (It’s this kind of excellent, in-depth reporting that will disappear with too many newspaper cutbacks.)

From the LA Times piece , “Wildfire costs are busting the Forest Service budget. A decade ago, the agency spent $307 million on fire suppression. Last year, it spent $1.37 billion. In California, state wildfire spending has shot up 150% in the last decade, to more than $1 billion a year.”

The costly trend continues with this year’s wildfires. Just out yesterday, the Sacramento Bee reports that “the cost of fighting the Butte Lightning Complex to date is approximately $84.7 million.” Costly? Yes, but no where near as expensive as the 2007 Zaca Fire, which cost at least $140 million.

Recalling the 2007 Zaca Fire, Rich Hawkins, a commander for the US Forest Service with years of firefighting experience said, “I’ve never spent so much taxpayer money.” The spending is so great that it has spawned an entire cottage industry of seasonal fire workers. Many farmers and construction crews earn more money fighting fires then from their regular jobs. As one farmer put it, “If I wasn’t to have the firetruck, I wouldn’t be able to afford to farm.”

There is something seriously wrong when farmers make more money from fires than their family farm. The state should do everything possible to respond to a wildfire. But, that doesn’t mean we should continue to issue bureaucrats a blank check. Auditors, firefighters, and the US Forest Service need to evaluate what strategies are most effective and reduce costs where possible.

For example, the LA Times piece questions the effectiveness of air drops. L. Dean Clark, a former fire management officer at the Chiricahua National Monument who responded to the 1994 fire at the National Monument, described C-130 retardant drops as “a pointless exercise in humidity-raising and a laughable example of a waste of federal money.”

Another idea: let more wildfires burn. A 2006 US Forest Service audit concluded that the agency needed to allow more fires to burn. The San Francisco Chronicle explains, “The service has long put out as many fires as it could, despite recognizing for many years that this has led to an unnatural buildup of fuels that has increased the size and severity of fires. Part of the problem is that old trees die and turn into dried tinder.”

The state cannot eliminate the threat of wildfires. However, we need to start finding fiscally responsible ways to fight fires.

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