Wildfire news, September 11, 2012

American Flag
Photo by Bill Gabbert

Eleven years ago…..

Today, eleven years after the 9/11 attacks on the United States, we will pause for a minute to remember those firefighters and other citizens who lost their lives that day……………….

Next Generation legged robots

We first wrote about these “robot dogs” in 2009, and now DARPA has developed the next generation of these machines that are designed to “unburden dismounted [military] squad members by carrying their gear, autonomously following them through rugged terrain, and interpreting verbal and visual commands.”

DARPA's legged robots

I wonder how much water or fire hose these critters can carry?

Amazing air tanker photo

One of the best photos ever taken of an air tanker drop was taken by Kent Porter at the Scotts fire in northern California and can be found at the San Francisco Chronicle web site.

California fire protection fee

The San Francisco Chronicle also has an article that updates the situation in which California owners of habitable structures in areas where the state is responsible for fire prevention must pay a $150 fee. Lawsuits may be filed. Of course.

New map of all large fires this year

The Associated Press has an interesting map that supposedly shows all of the large fires that have occurred this year.

Atomic scientists weigh in on climate change and wildland fires

A publication titled Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has published an article written by Max Moritz, of the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management in the College of Natural Resources at University of California, Berkeley. (I wonder if all that fits on a business card?) Mr. Moritz writes about how climate change will affect wildland fires and the population. It does not exactly break new ground, with the recommendations being communities should be fire-resistant and we must learn to coexist again with wildfire.

Thanks go out to Kelly

California fire fee launched

A controversial fire fee imposed by the state will be assessed on more than 15,000 homes in Marin County’s unincorporated areas — even though property owners there already pay for fire protection services.

The new fire fee for rural areas has caused protests in Marin and other California communities. KDRV.com reported that Cal Fire budget reductions in the last year and a half amounted to almost $80 million, and the new protection fee will help offset that loss. Revenue from the new fee is estimated at $84 million per year.

About 845,000 California property owners will receive notice of the fee; buildings are subject to the fee depending on location. The program covers only unincorporated areas of the state — about 31 million acres where fire protection is a state responsibility. Assemblyman Jared Huffman, D-San Rafael, says this is a “highly flawed fee” that legislators had to agree to as part of a budget deal. Huffman said the fee discriminates against rural areas and punishes communities that tax themselves to provide fire protection. He doesn’t think the fee system will survive a legal challenge.

Cal Fire’s Daniel Berlant says the growing number of homes in the interface has increased the state’s costs for suppression. “Services like public safety are vital,” he told Southern California Public Radio. “This new fee will create a stable funding source for public safety and in these tough times we can’t afford not to put money toward fire prevention.”

But many homeowners see the fee as an illegal tax. “This goes on to basically pay the ongoing infrastructure for Cal Fire,” says Republican Senator George Runner with the Board of Equalization. He says the fee paid by a homeowner may not benefit that particular homeowner and is therefore a tax. The Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association called the fee an “illegal tax” and is expected to sue.

Marin County Fire Chief Jason Weber said the fee will be assessed on 18,000 parcels in Marin for $1.75 million but won’t provide direct benefits to the county. “We want to make sure our communities are protected here in Marin, and $1.75 million is a lot of money we could use locally for wildland fire prevention.” Tiburon Fire Protection District Chief Richard Pearce said his district opposes the tax. “In Marin in particular, it takes $1.75 million from the county and there is no direct benefit,” he said. “We’re already covering the area.”

According to the Silicon Valley Mercury News, Marin officials aren’t alone in objecting to the fee. Others who oppose the program include the California State Association of Counties, California Professional Firefighters, and the California Fire Chiefs Association.

The “State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Benefit Fee” was signed into law last year. It requires homeowners in designated fire-prone areas to pay an annual fee of $150 for each habitable structure on a parcel. A $35 discount applies to properties that are already protected by an organized fire agency.

CalFire bills for fire prevention

California homeowners will soon receive bills in the mail for fire protection. Beginning next week, bills for as much as $150 will be sent; most homeowners’ bills will run $115, with a $35 discount for people who live in fire protection districts and already pay for fire services.

The annual fee is controversial; it was signed into law last year to provide funding for CalFire and has been heavily criticized by rural residents who view it as “double taxation.” Taxpayer advocate groups, according to the Union Democrat, argue that the fee is a tax and should have required a two-thirds vote by the Legislature instead of just a simple majority vote.

Houses and other structures in the 31-million-acre State Responsibility Area (SRA) will be billed at the $150 rate. Daniel Berlant with CalFire told KPBS news that the number of structures in the SRA has grown by about 16 percent in the last decade. “That’s where the residential area starts meeting up into the forest,” said Berlant. “It’s that middle section that we call the wildland-urban interface where we see the most fires that cause impact and damage throughout California,so the rural residents that the state is responsible for protecting are the ones that will be assessed the fee.”

CalFire home safety site

The annual fee is $150 for the first structure and $25 for each additional structure on the property. The Rancho Santa Fe Review reported that the funds pay for prevention activities on SRA lands.

CalFire has a parcel viewer online to view mapped SRA lands.

Property owners who disagree with the fire fee assessed on their properties can petition for a redetermination of the fee calculation. The petition must be based on whether the fee applies to the property for which the petition is filed, and must detail the grounds for redetermination of the fee. Grounds could include proof of whether the structure is actually located in the SRA or the number of habitable structures or pre-existing local fire protection services. The firepreventionfee.org website has more details.

Santa Barbara homeowners’ self-imposed taxes help mitigate the effects of wildfires

Santa Barbara houses after wildfire
Santa Barbara. Lara Cooper / Noozhawk photo

In 2006 homeowners in the foothills area above Santa Barbara, California voted to impose a tax on themselves that helps to make their homes more likely to survive a wildfire. The families in the lower foothills pay $70 a year while the tax on the “extreme foothills zone” is about $90. The homes are part of a special district, the Wildland Fire Suppression Benefit Assessment District, that was approved and extended by the City Council in 2009 and 2010.

In 2008 and 2009 the Tea and Jesusita fires burned into the foothills of Santa Barbara. The number of homes lost would have been even greater if some of the homeowners had not maintained clearance around their properties. An ordinance requires homes in the lower foothills zone to have a 100-foot clearance, while the clearance in the extreme foothills zone is 150 feet.

The services provided in the special tax district include:

  • Defensible space inspection. If the homeowner requests it, a fire department  inspector will come to the site, inspect the property, and provide advice on what could be done to prevent damage during a wildfire.
  • Clearance of vegetation along roads.
  • Chipping services. The taxpayers can place cut vegetation along the road and the city will chip it for them.
  • Vegetation management, clearing brush-free zones in large open areas. This is done by fire hand crews, goats, and privately contracted brush crews.

The Santa Barbara Noozhawk has an article that provides more details about the program.

Los Angeles to charge homeowners $13 brush inspection fee

The cash-strapped city of Los Angeles for the first time will begin charging residents living in a “wildfire danger zone” a $13 fee for having their home inspected for adequate fire clearance. Firefighters, earning overtime pay on their days off, will check to be sure flammable vegetation within 200-feet of the structures has been cleared.

If the home fails the first inspection the resident will be charged a $300 re-inspection fee. If the city has to hire a contractor to do the work, the homeowner will have to pay a $1,112 administrative fee plus the cost billed by the contractor.

A homeowner can avoid the $13 inspection fee by doing a self-inspection, but they have to provide a signed affidavit, a copy of the Tax Assessor’s map of the property, and photographs showing that the work has been done.

California proposes insurance fee for fire

Governor Arnold SchwarzeneggerCalifornia Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his state of the state address last month, proposed a 1.25% tax on property insurance, which would generate $125 million a year for CalFire. With the state facing a $14 billion deficit, the additional funds would be used to pay for 121 new engines, 11 more helicopters, and to increase the staffing on state engines from 3 to 4.

Some of the new engines would be placed at municipal fire departments, using the Office of Emergency Services model, where they would be maintained by the department, used as local backup, and be staffed and sent statewide if needed for large fires.

The insurance fee, amounting to about $10 to $12 per homeowner, would be charged to every insurance policy whether they lived in an urban setting in downtown Los Angeles, or in the brush covered hills east of San Diego. The urban residents would benefit very little from additional wildland fire suppression capability, while the those living in mansions above Malibu would sleep more comfortably.

On October 21 when a fire was burning through the hills outside Malibu, a well-dressed woman near the beach was interviewed on live TV. She owned property which was being threatened by the fire. She said that she had just talked with her son on his cell phone who was on the roof of their gym spraying water with a garden hose. He told her that he thought the main house, the guest house, and the gym would all be safe from the fire.

The question is, should she pay the same wildland fire protection tax as a resident of downtown LA?