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Californians must fund the fight against future fires, other disasters

When a disaster hits California — massive wildfire, high-magnitude earthquake, severe flood or landslide — our emergency responders take immediate and effective action to stop the catastrophe, treat the injured and help us put our lives back together.

Fire engines and helicopters are among the first to arrive. For example, when wildfires engulfed Southern California last year, destroying homes and forcing record numbers of evacuations, the state responded. Firefighters, law enforcement, military personnel, emergency managers, public health officials and countless others took action and aided the effort to extinguish the flames and help communities recover.

The tally: at least $291 million, borne by taxpayers across the state. In addition, insurance payouts related to the fires are estimated to have topped $1.4 billion. Those are costs that eventually translate into higher insurance premiums for homeowners. This shows us that fires are a statewide issue — they touch every Californian, from the Oakland hills to San Diego to Tahoe. Not only are fires possible in every region of our state, but a fire in one region affects us all, as do floods, as do earthquakes.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed an idea to help mitigate those costs and also to better equip our emergency responders so that they can more effectively prevent and tackle all of the situations they routinely encounter. It’s a proposal that will benefit all Californians: those in rural areas and urban areas, and those routinely affected by wildfires.

Now, it’s a given that protecting life is always the first priority of emergency responders in California. One way to improve our ability to do that is through prevention. Another is to ensure that we equip our heroic personnel with the best resources available.

This past year has tested our state’s resources with numerous natural disasters. Last year, there were 5,800 wildfires in California.

Thanks to effective coordination by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and aggressive tactics used by the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, as well as local and federal responders, 95 percent of all fires were contained before they reached 10 acres in size.

However, there were large, devastating and costly fires, the largest being the series of wildfires that broke out in some of the most well-known regions of the state, including Griffith Park, the Tahoe Basin, Catalina Island and vast spans of Southern California.

The governor’s Wildland Firefighting Initiative proposes a way to ensure California’s ability to continue responding effectively to the threat of new and more intense fires while also helping to mitigate the extreme costs of responding to fires. The initiative calls for a surcharge of 1.25 percent on all residential and commercial property insurance statewide. That’s an average cost of approximately $11.25 per household — a modest amount to ensure that when our firefighters are called into action, they are equipped with the tools they need to respond quickly and effectively.

Compare that $11.25 — estimated to amount to about $100 million over its first 10 months — to $291 million. Remember, that’s what it cost taxpayers for the state’s response to last year’s Southern California wildfires. And don’t forget to factor in the nearly $4 billion in insurer payouts for large wildland fires in the state since 2003.

Over time, the initiative will reduce costs to California taxpayers and will help save lives. Schwarzenegger proposes an aggressive plan to purchase additional firefighting equipment, including helicopters, over the next six years and to increase staffing, including seasonal firefighters and emergency services personnel, for the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire; Office of Emergency Services; and the California National Guard.

Because of their increasing intensity, today’s fires frequently threaten watersheds and utilities that serve cities and counties. The state’s protection of those resources benefits all cities and counties by protecting water quality and reliability of electric utilities for all Californians. In addition to keeping insurance rates lower, fire protection from the state also helps keep costs down for both electric and watershed restoration, which would likely be passed on to ratepayers in the form of higher utility rates.

California’s emergency response during the wildfires was a model for the rest of the world. We must continue to recognize the importance of emergency response and be willing to fund the equipment and programs that protect our society. State-owned emergency response assets such as fire engines, helicopters and other equipment are mobile, mutual-aid resources. Improving our firefighting resources is not just a local issue — it requires statewide preparedness and investment for the future.


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