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Firefighting Costs Further Strain Local Governments

October 29, 2003|Jessica Garrison, Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writers

State and local officials estimated Tuesday that battling the runaway fires in Southern California had drained tens of millions of dollars so far from their already stressed budgets.

Thousands of local firefighters and police, as well as traffic, animal services and even parks employees have been thrown into the battle against 10 major brush fires. The tab includes the costs of overtime, fuel and potential equipment losses.

The costs to government are only a small part of the infernos' overall toll, which state officials estimate at more than $2 billion, making them the costliest blazes in state history.

But because of the dire financial straits of state and local governments, the unexpected expenditures are especially threatening.

The California Department of Forestry alone is spending $8.9 million a day and has spent a total of $23.4 million on the 10 major fires that began burning in the past week, said staff chief Ernie Loveless.

Cities and counties were just beginning to tally their costs and make their cases for reimbursement from state and federal sources.

Nearly $8 million has been spent on firefighting alone on the two major fires in Los Angeles County, officials said.

The overall impact on the strained Los Angeles County budget is "hard to say," spokeswoman Judy Hammond said.

"Obviously, it will have to be absorbed," Hammond said. "I don't know if we will get reimbursements from FEMA," she added, referring to the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

Among the county's costs were about $150,000 to pay the nearly 2,000 overtime hours so far served by sheriff's deputies.

Other fire costs include moving hundreds of young inmates in two L.A. County facilities in La Verne that were threatened by fire as well as caring for hundreds of horses and other displaced pets and wildlife.

Although Los Angeles officials had not added up any figures as of Tuesday, Mayor James K. Hahn said the bills would complicate city efforts to avoid budget shortfalls -- especially in the face of state funding cuts.

"It's a big burden for all local governments who have had to make do with less this year as the state took money away from local government to balance the state's budget," Hahn said. "I think it points out the impact of what happens if you don't fund local government -- local government is fire departments, it is police departments, that's what we do."

Los Angeles Fire Chief William Bamattre said his department had deployed more than 200 firefighters to the Simi Valley fire while also staffing every fire station in the city -- but the cost has been tremendous.

"Obviously, when firefighters are working around the clock, they are working overtime. That is a cost the city has to bear, but it's absolutely necessary," Hahn said.

Gov. Gray Davis sought to reassure Southern California cities and counties Tuesday that they would not be obligated to pay firefighting costs beyond their budgets for this fiscal year. Now that President Bush has declared a disaster in the region, FEMA will reimburse local agencies for 75% of all unbudgeted costs, Davis said. He pledged that the state would pick up the remaining 25%.

Deflecting repeated questions about Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger, Davis said only, "This will definitely complicate the budget problems for the next governor."

Local officials are worried that the federal and state reimbursements would arrive too late to ease the strain on this year's budgets.

Ventura County officials used a brief visit by Schwarzenegger on Monday to press for quick reimbursement of firefighting costs. Supervisor Steve Bennett said they reminded Schwarzenegger that the cost of fighting two massive fires at opposite ends of Ventura County, about $1 million a day, was imperiling their budget.

"Our reserves are already under great pressure and we will be in real trouble if we don't get [disaster aid] quickly," Bennett said Tuesday, recounting the conversation. "It is critical not only that the federal dollars come quickly, but that the state dollars come quickly."

John Goss, assistant county administrator of San Bernardino County, said that county's costs will be in the millions of dollars, and property loss could reach the hundreds of millions.

"We are obviously still engaged in fighting the fire, especially in the San Bernardino Mountains, and it does not look good," he said.

In addition to the firefighter and police costs, there will be recovery costs, such as fixing roads, replacing burned-out guardrails and inspecting damaged homes.

"Certainly, our mountain communities are going to suffer incredible economic losses in terms of their loss of structures, loss of environment and ultimately, loss of lifestyle," said Supervisor Dennis Hansberger. "The environment and tourism are what really makes those mountains economically vital. This is certainly going to make just a horrendous difference."

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