Slammed by the Wine Country infernos of October and this week’s devastating Southern California firestorm, the state’s firefighting agency has blown through its budget for battling major brush fires just six months into the fiscal year.
As of Wednesday, Dec. 6, CalFire had incurred expenses totaling $490.3 million, well more than the $426.9 million budgeted for fiscal 2017-18 to put out large wildfires, said Scott McLean, a spokesman for CalFire in Sacramento.
And McLean said the bills have yet to come in for the giant blazes raging across Southern California.
H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance, said that doesn’t mean CalFire has run out of cash.
Palmer said the state has the ability to lean on a $1.4 billion reserve earmarked for all types of emergencies, including fires.
“That doesn’t mean there isn’t money to fight fires,” Palmer said in a telephone interview. “There has not been, there is not and there will never be a situation where the state budget impedes the ability of CalFire to deploy immediately all of the equipment and personnel that are needed to fight wildland fires.”
However, Palmer said officials will need to ask the Legislature to increase the $426.9 million account.
That’s the budget for something called the Emergency Wildland Fire Protection Fund, commonly referred to as the emergency fund, he said. It’s not the entire state firefighting budget. Palmer said CalFire has $1.8 billion budgeted overall this year for fighting fires of all sizes and types. And that total includes what’s in the emergency fund.
He said the emergency fund is reserved for large wildfires such as those raging across Southern California.
Hard to budget for Mother Nature
It’s not difficult to understand what happened. In the past five months, California has experienced some of the deadliest and most destructive fires in its modern history.
A firestorm of multiple blazes killed 44 people as they tore across Northern California’s Wine Country in October, generating $9 billion in property loss claims, the state Department of Insurance reported this week.
For the calendar year 2017 through Dec. 3, CalFire reported 6,762 fires and 505,391 acres burned statewide. That’s about 2,000 more fires than the average for the past five years, for this point in the season, and more than twice the average acreage: 202,696.
And while it is early in the state budget year — which runs July 1 to June 30 — it is not…