Are you paying Calif. to fight fires?

SACRAMENTO In less than a week, Cal Fire says it has spent $23 million fighting the recent fires in Southern California alone. In general, costs are going up because fire seasons have become longer.

"We have more people in the wildland areas; we are protecting more structures these days. As well as the higher costs of firefighting, with the increase in fuel costs, labor costs and our aerial program," said Dan Sendek, Cal Fire spokesman.

California traditionally underestimates the budget for firefighting and relies on budget reserves to make up most of the shortfall. This fiscal year, lawmakers allocated $69 million. However, four months later, the state has already spent almost $305 million.

The same thing happened last year: $82 million was allocated, but firefighting costs broke records at $518 million.

The memorable firestorms of 2003 blew the state's $70 million budget out of the water.

Just before Governor Schwarzenegger enacted the state budget two months ago, he used his blue pencil to cut half a billion dollars from social programs.

"We knew we were coming into another bad fire year, and so the Governor wanted to use his line-item veto authority to build that budget reserve up, as far as he could with his blue pencil," said H.D. Palmer, California Department of Finance.

But critics say cutting programs to build up reserves that are ultimately used for firefighting is not fair.

Seniors were hit especially hard in the last round of cuts.

"Obviously, we don't want to see anybody's house burn down. That's not the goal here. But we also don't want seniors losing a senior legal hotline, for example, where they can solve their consumer complaint problems," said Mike Herald, Western Center on Law & Poverty.

To avoid more cuts while keeping pace with the rising costs of disaster response, Governor Schwarzenegger will once again push for an extra fee levied on home owners. It will amount to about $12 per year, perhaps tacked on to property insurance premiums.

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