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We all must pay for emergency services

As California endures painful budget cuts and waits for its economy to recover, the threat of wildfires continues without regard to unemployment figures or economic forecasts.

This perfect storm of declining state revenues with an increasing need for resources both on the ground and in the air to fight wildfires is putting our state in a precarious situation -- one that undermines firefighting efforts and puts more lives and homes at risk.

In September, I invited state emergency officials to testify about how prepared California is for fighting wildfires during what is traditionally our most intense fire season, when hurricane strength Santa Ana winds blow. What I heard at the San Diego hearing disturbed me: too few fire trucks positioned statewide; too few cities and local governments able to provide the same level of firefighting assistance as in years past; and too few funds available to purchase fire equipment in the coming years.

While California uses a mutual aid response system -- one that combines the resources of all levels of government to respond to disasters -- experts at the San Diego hearing testified that the system is at risk of unraveling because of a lack of funds at every level of government.

Just recently, an investigation was launched to determine whether firefighting resources were not requested by the U.S. Forest Service during the early hours of the Station Fire in Los Angeles County because of fears that the federal government could not reimburse state and local governments. At the same time, budget cuts to the San Diego Fire Department forced it to send only three fire trucks and their crew members to the Station Fire, instead of the usual six.

Fire officials testified that this depletion of resources is affecting departments throughout the state.

The situation is compounded by the increasing cost of fighting fires each year as climate change, drought, and housing development in more rural and isolated areas combine to burn hundreds of thousands of acres at a cost to the state of more than $1 billion a year.

As discouraging as the situation may be, there is a way out by raising new revenue dedicated to responding to emergencies within our state, including fighting wildland fires.

Over the last several years, proposals have been floated to have people living in state responsibility areas -- rural areas not within city boundaries -- pay for a share of the cost of fire prevention and suppression. I sponsored legislation last year which would have assessed each property owner $50 per year to fund fire prevention in areas where the state assumes wildfire fighting responsibility. The bill generated a lot of discussion, but did not pass the State Assembly.

Another measure I introduced last year would make it easier for local governments to raise funds for firefighting. The threshold needed for passing such a ballot measure would have been lowered from 66 percent to 55 percent. Again, this proposal died in the legislature.

This year I wrote a bill that aims to reduce property damage in backcountry areas by requiring that wildfire risk be taken into account more when planning new development. The bill, SB 505, passed the legislature but was vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger -- a big disappointment.

Meanwhile, the Governor has proposed generating additional revenue for all disaster response through a 4.8 percent fee on property insurance. The revenue would go directly to fund state and local fire and disaster response.

Given that much of the state is at risk at one time or another of mudslides, floods, earthquakes, wildfires, or other disasters, it makes sense to ask all property owners to help pay for the emergency services they need at the level they deserve.

As a former member of the Blue Ribbon Fire Commission established immediately after the 2003 wildfires, and with vivid memories of personal losses suffered by many families during the 2003 and 2007 San Diego fires, I know that until we identify a reliable funding source for fire prevention and fire suppression, it is the public that will suffer the most.

I will continue to work for stable, consistent funding for California’s fire fighting efforts.