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As wildfires spread, so does the red ink

US and state officials start to boost firefighting budgets and weigh other reforms.

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Firefighters watch as a brush fire burns out of control in the Santa Ynez Mountains near Goleta, Calif. Faced with hundreds of big, hard-to-control blazes, California is struggling with what could be its most expensive wildfire season ever, burning through $285 million in the last six weeks alone and up to $13 million a day.

Phil Klein/AP/File

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Ten months after a wildfire swept through his neighborhood in Ranch Bernardo, a community nestled in the coastal mountains north of San Diego, Brian Toth is incredulous.

“I’m looking at homes with dead trees and fields of brown grass, and it’s unbelievable” that such fire-friendly fuel hasn’t been removed, he says. Four homes on his street burned to the ground, but “people still don’t get it. It boggles my mind to think that they’ve forgotten so quickly what can happen here.”

His lament echoes the dismay among firefighting officials from Washington to Sacramento. The number and average size of wildfires have been growing, particularly in the past eight years, and fire seasons are getting longer – a trend many scientists attribute to global warming. Yet more and more people are building homes along what specialists call the wildland-urban interface and few communities strictly enforce fire-prevention measures. The convergence of these factors is straining state and federal firefighting budgets. Now, lawmakers are coming up with proposals for everything from crafting firefighting budgets to regulating development in wildfire-prone areas.

“This is a very solvable problem,” says Rich Fairbanks, wildfire policy specialist with the Wilderness Society, who spent 32 years at the US Forest Service as a firefighter and in related activities. “But you’ll step on some toes” along the way.

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