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Megafires Don't Melt Opposition To California Fire Fee

Silver State Hotshots
Mike McMillan
US Forest Service
file photo

Rural Californians are reeling from yet another destructive fire season.

But that doesn’t mean they now support a controversial fire fee imposed several years ago by legislative Democrats and Governor Jerry Brown. Chris Nichols reports from Sacramento.

Bags stuffed with Betsy Miller’s family photos and quilting fabric sit ready to go in her Sierra foothills home. Miller and her husband, Les, are retirees who live in Amador County. The Butte Fire forced them to evacuate last week. Now, they’re back home. But they’re not unpacking.

Betsy Miller: “Fires have a way of coming back.”

Betsy Miller says she loves quilting too much to have her fabric go up in flames.

Betsy Miller: “I want to pick and choose what I’m going to finish, not have a fire pick and choose what I’m going to finish.”

Like many rural Californians, the Millers grudgingly pay the state an annual fire prevention fee of one hundred seventeen dollars. It was passed four years ago to help the state close a budget deficit.  And even as the Butte and other mega-fires threaten their homes, rural residents say the mistrust over the fee lives on. Les Miller calls it a state cash grab.

Les Miller: “They want more money, so they find a way to get it. Everybody is concerned about fire. So, they call it a fire fee.”

A dozen homeowners here interviewed this week say they remain opposed because the money doesn’t help fight fires. It only helps prevent them.

The Brown Administration declined comment. But a recent state report says the fee raises about $75 million dollars a year for efforts like identifying evacuation routes and clearing brush.

Signs thanking firefighters dot highways across the foothills. But that gratitude doesn’t extend to the state leaders who imposed the fee. Vincent Campa also fled his home during the Butte Fire.

Campa: “I’ve also had people frustrated with the fee, not being able to afford it, living on fixed incomes.”

A taxpayers group has sued the state, alleging the fee is an unconstitutional tax. But a final ruling could take years.