Wildfires Burn Through Terrain, Budget Money

The price tag for fighting California wildfires during just the past few weeks has climbed to more than $60 million, with the fire season's peak months still looming ahead.

But in a state recently forced to make deep budget cuts, pay bills with IOUs and order workers to take furloughs to close a $24.5 billion shortfall, funding to fight wildfires survived, and an emergency reserve even went up. Firefighting officials also have a multimillion dollar rainy day fund to tap into.

"There is a very serious budget problem in California," Lt. Gov. John Garamendi said last week as he signed an order declaring a state of emergency connected to a blaze in the Santa Cruz mountains. "However, we start with a very solid foundation of resources" for fighting fires.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has a budget of $519 million for the 2009-2010 fiscal year, about the same as the previous year, said Department of Finance Deputy Director H.D. Palmer. A fund for emergencies increased to $182 million from $69 million last year.

During a visit Saturday to the Santa Cruz County fire command center, Gov. Arnold

Schwarzenegger said the "drama every single year" of fighting fires is inevitable, and money must be put aside for it.

"Every year we see it coming; the question is to what extent," Schwarzenegger said.

In June, the governor signed an executive order exempting CalFire employees from the statewide furlough program for the 2009 and 2010 fire seasons.

A month earlier, he mobilized CalFire to deploy additional resources and personnel for the department.

"While we need to find savings in virtually all areas of state government," he said in June, "it is absolutely critical that we operate our firefighting operations at full capacity to protect lives and property from potentially devastating wildfires."

Last year was one of the busiest firefighting seasons on record. By mid-August, the state had spent $300 million in just six weeks of fighting thousands of fires around the state. CalFire also was borrowing money to fight the blazes as the state didn't yet have a budget.

This year is pretty mild in comparison, with fewer fires and in more remote areas. Historically, however, September and October are the most critical times of the year, when hot off-shore winds begin to blow. So there still may be trouble ahead.

On Monday, nearly a dozen fires were burning in California. Drought, wind, lightning, a camp fire and the flaming feathers of a hawk flying in the wrong place at the wrong time are to blame for some of the them, with the causes of others still being investigated.

Many of the blazes are nearly contained, and widespread evacuation orders have been lifted in most spots allowing hundreds of the thousands of people who had to flee their homes to return.

The costs are just now being compiled from this latest series of fires.

Less than a week old, the Santa Cruz County fire, at 80 percent containment, is nearing $10 million.

The blaze in Yuba County, which was ignited by burning feathers from a red-tailed hawk that flew into a power line, is at $3 million.

A complex of wildfires in Shasta County has cost more than $30 million, with full containment reached Monday.

And the price tag on a massive fire in Santa Barbara County has so far totaled $18.2 million. Investigators said the blaze was started by a camp fire used by marijuana growers, fire officials said.

In Alameda County, the Corral fire cost $1.8 million. It's now fully contained.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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