Saturday, December 24, 2011

Fire Prevention Fee - Vital or Villan?

When it comes to fire safety, rural communities suffer from a combination of spatial isolation, lack of public services, and reliance on volunteer services. Yesterday's San Francisco Gate article reported on yet another burden threatening rural areas: a proposed $150 fire prevention fee that will "apply residential and other habitable structures in rural areas throughout the state, where 90 percent of property owners and residents already pay local taxes for fire protection services."

Many rural residents feel a fee, particularly one this high, will divert funds away from local fire safety endeavors. For example, rural voters self-tax themselves in order to meet their fire safety needs and a fee such as this will make it harder get local voters to pay more. Staci Heaton, lobbyist for the Regional Council of Rural Counties in Sacramento, noted, "[w]hen people get a bill from the state, we worry (they) aren't going to be willing to tax themselves again. So if local fire districts need more revenue, they aren't going to get it."

Rural communities are no strangers to fending for themselves. Some believe locals are most qualified to create tailored solutions to their specific problems. No wonder people like John Hallman, a Napa County resident who has lived in rural Berryess Estates neighborhood for more than two decades, is concerned that the fee might make it hard to continue individualized community fire protection efforts. Until fairly recently, the remote town of Berryess Estates held the "dubious distinction of being one of the most at-risk communities in Napa County for catastrophic wildfire" according to a March 2011 article in the Napa Valley Register. This rural town, home to roughly 600 full-time and part-time residents, faces significant spatial isolation, with "the closest volunteer fire department is more than 20 minutes away in Pope Valley (posts on rural communities' reliance on volunteer firefighters can be found here and here), with Cal Fire in Middletown being the next quickest responders" and transportation into town is limited to a narrow two lane road. In an effort to address this problem, locals like John Hallman banded together and worked quickly to create a unique solution for a local problem. They formed the Fire Safe Council in 2004, met with fire prevention experts from Cal Fire and the Napa County Fire Department in 2005 and by 2007 the council was in full active planning. The group sought and received multiple grants and alternative funding, and with the new revenue was able to remove all the dangerous vegetation and have created a firebreak 200 feet wide and 3 1/2 miles long to protect homes.

The local effort has diminished the threat of future fires. This has not only provided peace of mind to those worried about their homes and possessions but has also had the positive economic effect of lower insurance rates for some residence, new insurance services being offered, and slow improvement on overall property values. However, the firebreak needs to be maintained. There is no guarantee that the state would use the funds to maintain it, which would put the burden of approximately $25 a year on the town members. While it may seem nominal to some, Hallman doubts residents would be willing to pay that on top of the hefty $125 fee. After all rural communities were hit hardest by the Great Recession and face higher rates of poverty and unemployment.

Many rural residents don't think this fee will translate into more effective fire prevention, and many have concerns as to the transparency of how these funds will be distributed. However, Governor Jerry Brown and other proponents insist "[t]his funding is vital to support wildfire prevention efforts, arson investigations and other important Cal Fire programs." Its no secret that California is undergoing a budget crisis, but taking money from rural communities who already face a myriad of economic difficulties does not seem fair to me.

If you would like to see if you live in a "state responsibility area" and will be affected by this fee, go to

No comments: