June 27, 2005

Unnatural disasters: 'We will spend whatever is necessary'

Fire costs escalating

San Bernardino Sun
By Guy McCarthy, Staff Writer

It cost fire agencies more than $5.2 million to fight three major blazes ignited Wednesday in San Bernardino and Riverside counties.

Nearly half that cash was spent battling the Hackberry Complex Fire in the remote and sparsely populated Mojave National Preserve.

A $5.2 million bill for less than a week of firefighting may sound like a lot. But it's a pittance compared to recent fire seasons in Southern California, one of the nation's most inferno-prone regions and home to unprecedented housing booms encroaching ever further into fire country.

"That's one of the complications of civilization,' said Santa Barbara County fire Capt. Steve Kliest, who worked the Hackberry Complex Fire on Monday. "With communities spreading into these wilderness areas, we have to protect the homes. And it's costly.'

During the height of the 2003 fire season, the U.S. Forest Service spent $100 million on 10 days of firefighting in Southern California alone. The Forest Service averaged $75 million per season in the region during the past five years, said Vallejo-based Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes.

While state agencies such as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection cope with limited annual budgets, federal agencies such as the Bureau of Land Management have access to virtually unlimited congressional cash if it is needed.

The CDF budget for fire protection statewide for 2005-06 is $748 million, Sacramento-based CDF spokesman Michael Jarvis said. CDF also has $95 million in emergency funding set aside.

"Bottom line, BLM dispatches the level of resources crews, aircraft, equipment determined by the personnel in charge of any given fire,' said Janet Bedrosian, a BLM spokeswoman in Sacramento. "They tally costs as they go against appropriations funded by Congress.

"When those costs are expended, bills are paid from other accounts, or new funds are appropriated by Congress as needed, either during the fires or at the beginning of the next fiscal year to make up for other funds spent on fires,' Bedrosian said.

"We will spend whatever is necessary to protect lives and property.'

The federal BLM had spent $2.3 million on firefighting in California so far this year as of Sunday, Bedrosian said.

Federal guarantees of unlimited firefighting funds help developers and pro-growth elected officials continue to sell the myth of the Southern California dream that fuels mass migration to the region, said fire ecologist Richard Minnich, based at UC Riverside.

"There's a big difference between fighting fire in a consolidated city with paved streets and blocks, compared to the wildland fuel-scape that we're building into more and more,' Minnich said. "People living in these areas unrealistically expect the same fire protection, and Congress fuels that with unlimited cash.'

The message to property owners and new homeowners translates all too often into a soothing subsidy of risky lifestyle choices, Minnich said. People who a hundred years ago either would never live in such fire-prone country or would pay for their own fire protection now rely on state- and federal-funded services.

"They say, 'I can live in a lake of gasoline and expect to be protected,'' Minnich said. "The government encourages land-use sprawl into wildlands through FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), getting people money to rebuild in these landscapes of gasoline. Where's it going to end?'

The Hackberry Complex Fire in the Mojave National Preserve cost $2.3 million as of Monday afternoon. Federal authorities said the fire was 95 percent contained Monday morning, but about 950 firefighters were still working.

Final costs of fighting the Paradise Fire in Morongo Valley and the Soboba Fire near San Jacinto in Riverside County totaled $2.9 million. Hundreds of structures were threatened in more densely populated communities nearby.
Cost estimates for the region's largest blazes so far this fire season, as of Monday afternoon:

Hackberry Complex Fire: More than 70,600 acres burned, including natural and cultural resources. Five homes, six trailers and other structures destroyed. Wednesday through present. COST: $2.3 million.

Paradise Fire, Morongo Valley: 3,022 acres burned. Six homes destroyed, one damaged. Wednesday through Saturday. COST: $1.2 million.

Soboba Fire, San Jacinto: 2,080 acres burned. No homes or structures destroyed. Wednesday through Saturday. COST: $1.7 million.