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California burns through its firefighting funds. Homeowner fees ahead?

Lawmakers advance a bill to add insurance surcharges to those living in disaster-prone areas. Critics say it's overbroad.

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Firefighters work to control flames of the Gap fire as hundreds of wildfires burn in central and northern California.

Eric Thayer/Rapport/Newscom

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Oakland, Calif. - California spent $412 million fighting wildfires last fiscal year – a record. Just two weeks into the new budget year, the state has already burned through a third of that total.

Firefighting costs far surpass their budget allotment, even as the state's $15 billion overall deficit has officials in Sacramento breaking out the hatchets. One major budget cut proposed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R), slashing Medicaid dental coverage for adults, roughly equals the cost overruns incurred last year from wildfire fighting.

The red ink has focused Sacramento on firefighting costs as never before. A consensus is emerging that if California is to continue to protect fire-prone homes, owners must pay more fees and local officials must pay more heed to fire danger.

"Everybody is now realizing we are going to spend a lot of money, ... and we might have to pass tax increases to pay," says Bill Stewart, a forestry specialist at the University of California, Berkeley. "We're not paying for [fire protection] out of the petty cash drawer anymore."

Technically, federal, state, and local governments divide roughly into thirds the lands in California over which they have wildfire responsibility. In reality, the feds often do more. The US has offered, for instance, to pay 75 percent of the $214 million state and local governments have spent on firefighting since the siege of lightning-strike fires on June 20.

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