Wildfires Draining State's Budget

The mounting daily cost of fighting Southern California's wildfires (searchis draining the state's already stressed coffers as California's contribution could swell to $100 million.

The state is pouring $5 million to $6 million a day into battling blazes from the Mexican border to northwest of Los Angeles.

But nobody is counting pennies as the tab is expected to grow to $90 million to $100 million, despite the state's ongoing budget crisis.

"Money is secondary in this process," said Steve Maviglio, press secretary to Gov. Gray Davis (search).

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection's (searchentire annual emergency fire suppression budget is $70 million. But it projects half the money it spends may be reimbursed by the federal government because about half the fires are burning on federal land.

President Bush on Monday declared a federal emergency in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego, and Ventura counties. Federal reimbursements may be available to state and local governments for up to 75 percent of their costs, and some assistance will be available to individuals as well.

Davis predicted damage from the fire will be in the billions of dollars, topping the $1.7 billion from the 1991 Oakland Hills fire.

This had been a relatively light fire season until last week. But as the costs soar in Southern California, and if next year is a heavy fire year, it could aggravate the state's budget deficit just as Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger struggles to trim spending. His finance director will be able to shift money if needed to deal with the emergency, said Department of Finance spokeswoman Anita Gore.

"Job one right now is to knock down these fires and take care of the immediate needs of the people affected," said Schwarzenegger spokesman H.D. Palmer.

Schwarzenegger is pleased by Bush's disaster declaration and will do what he can to get additional help and assistance as he visits Washington, D.C., Tuesday through Thursday, Palmer said. Davis, recalled by voters earlier this month, is briefing Schwarzenegger daily.

The state's fire department had 8,229 firefighters on the line in Southern California, even as it stepped up crews in Northern California over the weekend in anticipation of hot, dry winds there as well.

Cost estimates are just as chaotic as the firefighting at this early stage.

Fighting the fires had cost $18.1 million through 10 p.m. Sunday, according to a compilation by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

The estimate will likely be revised upward, and the cost will grow exponentially as more resources are thrown into the fight. It does not include damage, nor the disruption to commerce caused by delays in air and ground travel triggered by the closure of major interstate highways, the evacuation of a Federal Aviation Administration control center, and flight cancelations due to heavy smoke.

"It's a wind-driven fire, and it's almost as if the houses are the fuel," said U.S. Forest Service spokesman Matt Mathes. So far, however, "we're nowhere near the Oakland Hills fire in terms of loss of structures."

Fifteen people were confirmed dead and more than 1,100 homes had burned in the Southern California fires, which endangered another 30,000 homes.

Though far smaller in terms of acreage, the Oct. 20, 1991, fire in the hills east of Oakland and Berkeley killed 25, injured 150 and destroyed about 3,000 homes, apartments and condominiums, causing $1.7 billion in damage.

Insurance companies are only just beginning to assess the latest damage, said Candysse Miller, executive director of the Insurance Information Network of California.

"It's still early," added Bob Devereux of State Farm Insurance Cos. "A lot of folks haven't been back to their neighborhoods to check things out."