State fire fee to be topic at Dunsmuir Fire Safe Council meeting

Richard DuPertuis

The Dunsmuir Fire Safe Council is issuing invitations to state officials to come to a meeting in town and answer questions about the new state Fire Prevention Fee. Council President Mike Refkin said Sunday he had contacted the offices of State Senator Ted Gaines, Assemblyman Brian Dahle and Governor Jerry Brown.

He is hoping representatives from these offices will show up for a public meeting in Dunsmuir City Council Chambers scheduled for Thursday, March 14 at 5 p.m. Refkin said the first question he wants answered is “Where are the funds going?”

In 2011, Brown signed into law Assembly Bill x1 29, establishing a fire protection and prevention fee to be paid by property owners in developed wildland areas. Habitable structures in “state responsibility areas,” rural regions outside of city limits, are now assessed a $150 annual fee. If an SRA property is already covered by a local fire district, the fee is reduced to $115.

The first billings went out late last year.

The governor’s office estimates the fee will initially raise $50 million, taking that burden off the state’s General Fund. Revenue will be allocated to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, according to a letter to the Assembly July 11, 2011, the date the governor signed ABx1 29.

The Fire Prevention Fee is not popular with the public, and the DFSC is catching some of the heat. “I’ve talked to 40 to 50 citizens on the subject,” said Refkin. “We’re mentioned as receiving these funds. And so people are angry at the Fire Safe Council.”

Other Fire Safe Councils in the county are hearing similar sentiments. Dale Nova, who serves as both co-facilitator of the Mount Shasta Fire Safe Council and joint coordinator of Fire Safe Councils of Siskiyou County, said on Monday the majority of people he’s heard from are upset about the fee.

“A lot of people see it as a tax,” Nova said. “They are angry at CAL FIRE and the Fire Safe Councils because they think they are getting money from this.”

Emphasizing that his words are his own, not representing any Fire Safe Council, Nova said, “I don't know what is going to happen to that money.” Referring to legislators, he added, “What they say and what they do are different things.”

ABx1 29 creates a fund in the State Treasury called the State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Fund and requires that all money collected from the Fire Prevention Fee be deposited into that fund. An unspecified amount may be used by the BOE to administer the fund, including all start-up costs for a period not to exceed two years.

As listed in the legislation, seven specific fire prevention activities can be paid for by these funds:

• Local assistance grants.

• Grants to Fire Safe Councils, the California Conservation Corps, or certified local conservation corps for fire prevention projects and activities in the state responsibility areas.

• Grants to a qualified nonprofit organization with a demonstrated ability to satisfactorily plan, implement, and complete a fire prevention project applicable to the state responsibility areas. The department may establish other qualifying criteria.

• Inspections by the department for compliance with defensible space requirements around structures in state responsibility areas.

• Public education to reduce fire risk in the state responsibility areas.

• Fire severity and fire hazard mapping by the department in the state responsibility areas.

• Other fire prevention projects in the state responsibility areas, authorized by the board.

“The department” seen in the text refers to the Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, the formal name for CAL FIRE, and “the board” is the Board of Forestry and Fire Protection, according to CAL FIRE Deputy Director Janet Upton.

Dunsmuir Fire Safe Council Program Manager John Kessler said he wants clarification on the terms “public education” in items 1 and 5, since the DFSC hosts an annual open house every year, educating the public. “What do they estimate the program costs to be?” he also wanted to know. “How soon will grant money be available to local Fire Safe Councils for our on-the-ground work?”

Refkin said that at this point he doesn’t know if the Fire Safe Council will receive a share of the money or not. “Where is the funding going?” he said. “I’m confused. Every time I talk to someone, I get a different answer.”

Kessler said the March 14 meeting was set up so people could get clear answers, and to know what benefits to expect from the fee. “We will have a list of questions,” he said on behalf of the DFSC. “And we’ll ask people to submit questions to be answered.”