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California faces battle in getting more federal fire funding

Even though the state represents 12% of the nation's population, last year it got only 5% of the U.S. dollars available for firefighting. Rural-state departments often seem to get preference.

December 05, 2009|By Richard Simon

Reporting from Washington — California may be known for its devastating fires, and it may represent 12% of the nation's population, but it received only about 5% of the federal funds provided last year to help fire departments pay for equipment and training.

The year before, the state received even less than Alabama, North Carolina and Wisconsin.

California officials say it's another example of the state not receiving its fair share from Washington. And it underscores the challenge the Golden State's delegation faces in trying to wrest more money from a Congress where rural-state lawmakers hold considerable political firepower.

Although California long has complained about contributing more in federal taxes than it gets back, the fire grants have gained importance as fire departments struggle with local budget cuts.

The state last year received about $26.2 million of the $492.5 million provided -- about 5.3% -- even though nearly one fourth of the 5.3-million acres burned in wildfires nationwide were in California. Pennsylvania, the top recipient, got $41 million.

In 2007, California received $18.7 million, about 3.8% of the total.

"There clearly is a disproportionate amount of funding when you consider the vulnerability that California has [to wildfires] compared to so many other states," said Rep. Elton Gallegly (R-Simi Valley).

Since 2002, about 70%, or roughly $2.6 billion, of the money provided under the Assistance to Firefighters Grant program has gone to rural departments, according to the International Assn. of Fire Fighters, which represents full-time professional firefighters and has complained that the program has been skewed.

Unlike some other federal programs that tie funding to population, the fire grants are awarded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency on a competitive basis "under the advisement of a peer review panel made up of industry experts and firefighting professionals," said FEMA spokesman Clark Stevens.

A department's call volumes and population served are factors, as is its ability to buy the equipment it needs to respond to fires.

Although California's 53-member House delegation is the largest of any state and includes Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), the state has often been frustrated in its efforts to increase its share of federal funding by the Senate, where lawmakers from less-populated areas wield more influence.

For example, California, despite snagging a good chunk of homeland security funding last year, still received less per capita than Wyoming. That was the result of efforts by rural-state senators to ensure that all states receive a share of the money, regardless of size or risk of terrorism.

The rural influence can be seen in the firefighter grants program, which guarantees a chunk of the money to volunteer fire departments, which often serve rural areas.

"The reason California gets less than other states," said Barry Kasinitz, director of government affairs for the International Assn. of Fire Fighters, "is because the population of California is largely urban and suburban, so the fire departments with the greatest demands are discriminated against in a system that favors rural areas."

Volunteer departments say they need the money more than those in big cities because they lack the tax base to fund the replacement of older equipment. A Nebraska volunteer fire department, for example, recently received a grant to replace a 1948 pumper.

"There are some smaller volunteer departments that are dependent on funds from community fundraisers, such as weekly dinners, bingo nights or other special events," said Ken LaSala, director of government relations for the International Assn. of Fire Chiefs, whose members hail from all types of fire departments.

William Metcalf, chief of the North County Fire Protection District in Fallbrook, said: "Since the vast majority of fire departments in California are either municipal departments or fire districts -- both supported by tax dollars -- we are going to lose out almost every time when compared to the legitimately poor and underfunded rural department in other areas of the country."

Metcalf sees a bias in the program, but "it's not a discrimination against California. It is a discrimination against communities that fund fire protection adequately."

He said that he and many other California departments have become discouraged by the program.

"Fewer are even bothering to apply," he said.

"California is getting a short shrift," said Brad Smith, chief of staff to Rep. David Dreier (R-San Dimas). He said Dreier is hopeful that lawmakers from both parties in the delegation will work together to try to increase the funding.

The state's prospects to secure more money could improve under a recently passed House bill that would guarantee career departments, as well as volunteer departments, a minimum amount of the grant money. The measure also would increase the money that urban fire departments could secure under the program.

richard.simon@latimes.com

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