Real costs of California wildfires obscured by emergency spending, new report finds




  • In Business
  • 2022-11-30 21:37:53Z
  • By Sacramento Bee
 

Californians are well aware of destructive wildfires after the last difficult few years. But they may be less familiar with how government pays to fight them as costs have ballooned.

Because states budget for wildfires based on past spending, they often rely heavily on emergency funding during and after new conflagrations. This can obscure true costs and stymie long term fire prevention efforts, according to a report released Wednesday by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

"The growing incidence, size, and spending required to deal with wildfires pose a major challenge across the United States," said Colin Foard, a Pew research manager. "Efforts to manage growing spending, not to mention impacts on the environment and lives, must be well coordinated and based on the best information possible."

To understand the impact of wildfires on state finances, Pew examined publicly available data and interviewed experts on state wildfire budgeting, focused on Alaska, California, Florida, Nevada, Texas and Washington.

They found that state governments across the board often underestimate wildfire costs and covered spending gaps by depending on post-fire emergency spending and supplemental funds as they wait for federal reimbursement.

This mechanism may offer flexibility during unpredictable disasters, but it obscures total wildfire costs from the regular budgeting process and makes long-term fire management and planning more difficult, researchers wrote.

Pew recommended states base budget allocations on prediction of future fire threats. It also suggested prioritizing deterrence policies such as prescribed burning and sharing spending data more transparently.

Drought, increasing temperatures due to climate change and dead trees have intensified wildfires in California - leaving federal and state governments to pick up the check.

In California, the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has seen its overall budget increase by roughly 45% over the past five years, and its wildfire response budget grow by two-thirds.

Cal Fire has a wildfire response budget meant to cover typical expenses, including salaries for firefighters and equipment maintenance. It also has access to what's called the Emergency Fund, which starts at an estimate based on recent years but can be increased by an unlimited amount without legislative approval.

In 2020, the worst wildfire year recorded in California history, the agency's base budget was $2.7 billion with $854 million in the following year's emergency fund. This budget year, the base is $3.7 billion with $413 million for emergency spending.

Overall, the wildfire response budgeting system gives ample discretion to Cal Fire and the governor's office, said Helen Kirstein, an analyst with the Legislative Analyst's Office. Some of those funds are eligible for federal reimbursement.

"Whatever you think the specifics of how it's done are perfect or not, I think having some way to augment that 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 Gilless, chair of the state board of forestry and fire protection. From earthquakes to floods, government finance must spread risk across multiple political units.

"The implications report is that states should be more intentional in looking at the long term dynamics losses to climate related natural hazards," he said. "The problem is bigger than a wildfire problem."

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