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Fire Prevention “Fee” vs. The Fire Safe Council

California Fire Prevention Fee Fire Safe Council

April 2013, Ryan McKillop, Inventory Forester –

Following the signing of Assembly Bill X1 29 by our Governor in July of 2011, The State Responsibility Area (SRA) Fire Prevention Benefit Fee was born.  The law approved the new annual Fire Prevention “Fee” (actually an unconstitutional tax under litigation by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association) to pay for supposed fire prevention services for over 850,000 people within the SRA.

The fee, applied to all habitable structures within the SRA, and levied by the Board of Equalization at the rate of $150/year per habitable structure (minus $35 where local protection is provided), is extracted from our pockets to fund “a variety of important fire prevention services ( to CALFIRE) within the SRA including brush clearance around communities on public lands, along roadways and evacuation routes; and activities to improve forest health so the forest can better withstand wildfire.

Other activities include defensible space inspections, fire prevention engineering, emergency evacuation planning, fire prevention education, fire hazard severity mapping, implementation of the State Fire Plan and fire-related law enforcement activities such as arson investigation.”  Those of us who pay this fee, much to our consternation, do so because (as stated by CALFIRE):

  • The presence of structures within SRA can pose an increased risk of fire ignition and an increased potential for fire damage within the state’s wildlands and watersheds.
  • The presence of structures within SRA can also impair wildland firefighting techniques and could result in greater damage to state resources caused by wildfires.
  • The costs of fire prevention activities aimed at reducing the effects of structures upon State fire protection responsibilities in SRA should be borne by the owners of these structures.
  • Individual owners of structures within SRA receive a disproportionately larger benefit from fire prevention activities than that realized by the state’s citizens generally.
  • It is necessary to impose a fire prevention fee upon individual owners of structures in SRA to fund fire prevention activities in those areas from which such owners derive a specific benefit.

Despite the stated necessities for this fee, the truth is that it was designed to fill the $80 million shortfall in CALFIRE’s budget, and 90% of us already pay local taxes for fire services that we directly receive benefits from – like a fire engine showing up.  Also, our property taxes already contribute to the service contracts that counties have with CALFIRE.

A fee for services?  I don’t think so…just ask the residents on the east side of Plumas County who have been assesed. There isn’t a CALFIRE engine to be found anywhere except by Lake Almanor!

Does anyone really think these dollars will come back to the communities from which they originated?  Even if they did, I’m certain it would be mere pennies on the dollar after CALFIRE’s administrative costs are taken out.

And what about some protection from fire liability if a fire starts on our property and causes damage elsewhere – just as we pay for insurance and receive a benefit when something goes wrong?  Nope, you’re still on the hook for suppression cost and damages.  You would think that if we are mandated to pay CALFIRE an assessment for prevention, that we would actually get something in return. What a scam.

What works better and makes more sense for prevention in the SRA? Fire Safe Councils.

Fire Safe Councils (FSC’s) are grassroots community-based organizations which share the objective of making California’s communities less vulnerable to catastrophic wildfire – and most of the areas represented by the councils are within the very same SRA’s that CALFIRE recognizes as having high to extreme fire risk.  These councils accomplish this objective through education programs and projects such as shaded fuel breaks or firebreaks (many projects are collaborations between private, state and federal lands) to protect area residents against an oncoming wildfire and to provide fire fighters with a place to fight the oncoming fire.

The first fire safe councils started in the early 1990s, and there are now over 100 around the state.  All fire safe councils are independent entities funded (mostly underfunded) through piecemeal grant dollars from various sources, in-kind work and even donations.  Some are organized as non-profit 501(c)(3) corporations; others operate under a memorandum of understanding with a county, city, and/or local fire protection district; some have no formal structure at all.

Fire safe councils can vary in focus. Some are county-wide, while others comprise only the Homeowner’s Association in a subdivision, to all sizes in between, including those specific to a community.  While some councils have paid staff, such as an Executive Director, and may have grant funding for fuel reduction projects, all FSC’s rely heavily on volunteers for much of their work, and all are dedicated to serving the community.

Examples of local councils in our area include the Yuba, Plumas and Butte FSC’s, as well as the Forbestown Ridge FSC, which was formed in 2009.

Soper-Wheeler Company, being a fairly large landowner in the area and having an interest in fire safe conditions around our local communities, collaborates with all of these councils on a regular basis.

The Forbestown Ridge council, I think, is a prime example of how community volunteers can work within the goals and objectives of the larger county council (Butte) to help make individual communities prepared in the event of a large fire.  But funding sources are not easy to come by.  Projects take years to develop and fund.  Typically, projects are smaller than they could be if more dollars were available, but monies are spent efficiently and wisely.

Just think how much more effective these councils could be if the State were to return part of the SRA fees back to the county councils where the money originated from?  After all, tax money is always best spent at the local level.

Last year, work began on the Forbestown Fuel-Break Project, part of a 7-phase effort to reduce fuels along a 2 mile area along Forbestown and Lower Forbestown Roads.  As most of us who live in this rural part of Butte and Yuba Counties know, a north-wind driven fire originating on the east side of Lake Oroville could easily run right over the ridge and level the communities of Forbestown, Brownsville and Challenge.

With the help of a $97,600 grant from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy, an additional $310,704 in Federal Stevens Grant funds, Butte County Public Works, involvement of private timberland owners like Soper-Wheeler and CHY Companies, and residents on small parcels, the potential for such a disaster is being mitigated.

Additional benefits include adequate address signage to assist responding resources, a free chipping program, a roadside spraying program, and education such as clearing limits, preparedness and evacuation routes.  This council, like the 100 or so others around the State, is getting it done, not just collecting our money.

 

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