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Friday, Aug 30 2013 11:01 PM

As wildfire rages, fee looks pretty reasonable

By The Bakersfield Californian

As the huge Rim Fire chewed its way into Yosemite National Park this week, George Runner, an elected member of the state Board of Equalization, was holding town hall meetings to drum up support for abolishing California's fire prevention fee.

For months, the former Republican legislator has waged war on a fee he contends is unfair and illegal.

The fee, which was passed by the Legislature in 2011 on a simple majority vote, requires Californians living in rural, fire-prone "state responsibility areas" to pay $150 a year per habitable structure.

Runner and his allies, including the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, claim the "fee" is a tax that required a two-thirds vote of the Legislature. The association has filed a lawsuit to abolish the fee.

While the court deliberates the semantics of fee versus tax, the state has burned through 25 percent of its firefighting budget in less than two months of this fiscal year, which began in July. And federal officials report the U.S. government's firefighting budget is tapped out.

It was once rare for fires to burn 5 million acres in a fire season. So far this season, 31,900 fires have burned 3 million acres in the U.S. to go. Last year, 67,700 fires burned 9.3 million acres.

Even climate change doubters must recognize that the wildfire seasons and stretches of high temperatures are getting longer. Combined with a lack of rain, there now is more dry fuel to feed wildfires.

As bad as the Rim Fire has grown to be, it is just one in a series of wildfires that have raged in California this month, destroying homes and burning through tax dollars.

The Aspen Fire, east of Fresno, the American Fire, near Lake Tahoe, and lightning-caused blazes in Kern County's mountains also kept federal, state and local firefighters scrambling. But don't blame climate change alone. Home building has pushed into remote areas, requiring a response where in decades past a wildfire would have been allowed to burn itself out. And that is the rationale behind the California Fire Prevention Fee.

If developers choose to build and Californians choose to live in fire-prone areas, they should help pay at least a fraction of the cost of preventing and fighting fires.

"This fee will fund a variety of important fire prevention services within the SRA (State Responsibility Area) including brush clearance around communities on public lands, along roadways and evacuation routes; and (fund) activities to improve forest health so the forest can better withstand wildfire," according to the fee's website.

We hope the courts will find that this annual fee is neither illegal nor unfair. Rather, it is a baby step toward rural property owners paying their fair share of the cost of maintaining a chosen lifestyle.

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