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Fires put California budget in hot spot

Bob Moon Aug 31, 2009
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Fires put California budget in hot spot

Bob Moon Aug 31, 2009
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Kai Ryssdal: This was a scary and smoky weekend in parts of the greater Los Angeles area. An enormous wildfire in the mountains north of town claimed the lives of two firefighters yesterday. The fire is at about 140 square miles and growing. The flames are also burning through California’s emergency firefighting fund. And with it, as Marketplace’s Bob Moon reports, the state’s fragile budget.


BOB MOON: When the wildfire season began here earlier this year, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged he’d find adequate funding — nevermind the state’s huge budget shortfall.

GOVERNOR SCHWARZENEGGER: We have a financial crisis in California, but I wanted to make sure that you all know that even though we have this crisis, we will not be short of money when it comes to fighting those fires.

Schwarzenegger set aside $182 million for wildfire costs. But even though the fire season started out relatively mild, half the money was gone as of a week ago. And the next couple of months are typically the busiest for firefighters, as hot desert winds start to blow.

Carroll Wills speaks for the California Professional Firefighters Association. He fears it’s local fire departments that will ultimately come up short.

CARROLL WILLS: Local governments are the backbone of the mutual aid system in California. California becomes one big fire department when an incident like this happens, and they draw resources from all over the state.

The worry is California could be slow to reimburse local governments, and their firefighters could simply stop showing up when they’re needed.

Federal grants can ultimately cover up to 75 percent of the firefighting costs, but Wills says some local governments are still waiting for federal money from as far back as two years ago.

In the end, he says, the lack of funds means public safety can suffer.

WILLS: It has the potential for leaving localities vulnerable to smaller fires that occur in their own back yards.

Wills says the cost of fighting these wildfires has been rising steadily as once-remote areas have been developed. Where the focus had been on simply containing the flames, saving lives and property has become a much more expensive task.

In Los Angeles, I’m Bob Moon for Marketplace.

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