State governments are over-relying on emergency spending to fight wildfires, a report says

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A home is engulfed in flames after a mill fire caused damage in the Lake Shastina area northwest of Weed, California, on September 2.

Special to The Record Searchlight via AP

Californians are well aware of the devastating nature of wildfires after recent difficult years. But they may be less familiar with how the government pays to fight them, as costs have risen.

Because state wildfire budgets are based on past expenditures, they often rely heavily on emergency funding during and after new fires. That, he said, could hide the true costs and stymie long-term fire prevention efforts report released Wednesday by the Pew Charitable Foundation.

“The growing number, size and cost of fighting wildfires poses a major challenge for the United States,” said Colin Ford, Pew Research Director. “Efforts to manage rising costs, not to mention the impact on the environment and lives, must be well-coordinated and based on as much information as possible.”

To understand the impact of wildfires on public finances, Pew examined publicly available data and surveyed experts on state wildfire budget planning, focusing on Alaska, California, Florida, Nevada, Texas and Washington.

They found that state governments often underestimate wildfire costs and cover spending shortfalls by relying on post-fire emergency spending and supplemental funds while they wait for federal reimbursement.

This mechanism can offer flexibility during unpredictable disasters, but it hides the overall costs of wildfires from the normal budgeting process and complicates long-term fire management and planning, the researchers wrote.

Pew recommended that states base budget allocations on forecasts of future wildfire threats. He also suggested prioritizing containment policies such as prescribed burning and more transparent sharing of cost data.

Drought, rising temperatures from climate change and dead trees have fueled California’s wildfires — leaving the federal and state governments to take control.

In California, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection increased the total budget by about 45% over the past five years, and its wildfire budget has grown by two-thirds.

Cal Fire has a wildfire budget designed to cover typical costs, including firefighter salaries and equipment maintenance. It also has access to a so-called Contingency Fund, which starts with an assessment based on recent years but can be increased by an unlimited amount without legislative approval.

According to the agency, 2020 was the worst year for wildfires in California history basic budget was $2.7 billion with $854 million in the contingency fund next year. This budget year, the base is $3.7 billion out of $413 million extraordinary expenses.

Overall, the wildfire response budget planning system gives Cal Fire and the governor’s office broad authority, said Helen Kirstein, an analyst with the Office of Legislative Analysis. Some of these funds are eligible for federal reimbursement.

“Whether you think the specifics of how it’s done, whether it’s ideal or not, I think having some way to scale it up is really important because some years are going to be worse than expected,” she said.

Wildfires are just one of the many natural hazards facing states like California, said J. Keith Giles, Chairman of the State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection. From earthquakes to floods, public finances must spread risk across multiple political units.

“The implication of the report is that states need to take a closer look at the long-term dynamics of losses from climate-related natural hazards,” he said. “The problem is bigger than the wildfire problem.”

This story was originally published November 30, 2022 at 1:37 p.m.

Ari Plahta is a political reporter for The Sacramento Bee. She covered water issues for the Los Angeles Times and schools for the LA Daily News, but began her journalism in Israel and Palestine. She grew up in the San Fernando Valley and graduated from UC Santa Barbara and UC Berkeley.

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