California talking about fire tax in exurban areas

Brief by Allen Best

Forestry – September 2008 – Colorado Central Magazine

California is talking about ways to tax people in rural areas for the cost of fighting wildfires. The cost is huge, about $950 million in the last year. The state has a budget deficit of more than $17 billion, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Christine Kehoe, a state legislator from San Diego, tells the newspaper that frenzied building in rural areas increases the burden on state firefighters to defend homes and property. Defending homes substantially increases the cost of firefighting. She says that people who choose to live in exurban, rural areas must shoulder more of the firefighting costs.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has proposed an insurance surcharge on all property taxes. But the state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office says the tax would be unfair to people who don’t live in rural, exurban areas. It wants the tax levied only in areas protected by the state’s firefighting agency, called CalFire.

The issue again highlights the long-simmering dispute about rights and responsibilities of development -not just in California, but across the Mountain West. The Journal points out that the local governments that approve high-risk development bear little fiscal consequence for the cost of fighting fires.

“Local land-use approvals for residential development in the backcountry should be tied to the future cost of firefighting,” says Kehoe, the legislator. “If they want to approve a new development, they should be required to plan for ongoing fire prevention; otherwise, this problem will continue without interruption.”