California costs run up as Rim Fire rages

08/27/2013 12:00 AM

09/04/2013 8:53 AM

As the Rim fire raged Monday near Yosemite National Park, fire officials estimated the cost of the firefight at $20 million and rising, the latest in a rush of wildfires threatening to blow through California's firefighting budget for a second straight year.

The California Department of Finance said the state has spent more than $44 million fighting fires since the July 1 beginning of the budget year.

Lawmakers budgeted $172 million for the entire season.

"We're eight weeks in and we've spent roughly a quarter of what's budgeted," said H.D. Palmer, the spokesman for the department.

The $172 million budgeted for firefighting this fiscal year is more than has been set aside in previous years, but costs exceeded the budget last year. The state budgeted $92.8 million last year, but costs have hit $221 million and fourth-quarter expenses are still being reconciled, Palmer said.

Meanwhile, the federal government announced Monday it would reimburse the state as much as 75 percent of the cost of fighting the Rim fire, now the 13th largest in California's recorded history.

The announcement followed a telephone call by President Barack Obama to Gov. Jerry Brown on Sunday.

Brown, who traveled to the fire-stricken area Monday, told reporters in Tuolumne City the state will provide "whatever it takes" to fight the fire. Yet for a Democratic governor who has been more conservative in state budgeting than some lawmakers of his own party, the occasion provided an opportunity to lobby on budget matters, too.

"This fire underscores that there are always contingencies out there, there's things we don't expect," Brown said. "So some people like to say, 'Well, we've got some extra money, let's go spend it on one program or another.' Well, we do have to keep a decent reserve, so when the unexpected happens, we're ready for it."

Brown called the fire "one of the worst" the state has experienced. The blaze grew to 149,780 acres Monday and was 15 percent contained, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the agency, said the state has responded to about 5,000 wildfires so far this year, about 1,500 more than at this point in a typical year.

Fire officials blamed unseasonably dry conditions for the fire season's early start and continuing intensity.

The state budget includes a $1.1 billion reserve the state can use if costs exceed what has been been budgeted. The state can also expect some reimbursement from the federal government once fires subside and officials sort out how much money state and federal teams spent fighting fires on state and federal lands.

The $20 million Rim fire estimate provided by Cal Fire includes both state and federal costs, though how much each government will pay has not yet been determined, Berlant said.

The Brown administration anticipated an unusually burdensome fire season even before the current budget was adopted.

At a news conference in May to kick off Wildfire Awareness Week, Natural Resources Secretary John Laird said the state's emergency firefighting fund was in "reasonable shape" but added, "The message is clear: We will do whatever it takes to fight the fires and worry about that later, because public safety is first."

Call David Siders, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1215. Follow him on Twitter @davidsiders.

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