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Wildfires Burn Through Cash, Not Just Landscapes

When a major wildfire hits on state land, Steve Hawks is dispatched as a Section Finance Chief for Cal Fire. In his day job, he leads the agency’s Wildland Fire Prevention Engineering program.

Wildfires continue to strain government resources throughout California, creating a vicious cycle of fires and land burdened with excess fuels, which leads to bigger fires.

According to KQED, nobody knows that better than Steve Hawks. The nearly 30-year firefighter works out of a nondescript office building in Sacramento overseeing Cal Fire’s Wildland Fire Prevention Engineering Program.

But this time of year, he wears another hat.

“Well, I guess in essence it kind of is a fire accountant,” Hawks says with a laugh of his other role with Cal Fire.

The actual job title is finance section chief, and Hawks is one of six throughout the state. It’s part of the Incident Command System Cal Fire uses on major wildfires.

When Hawks is sent to a major fire as the finance section chief, it’s his job to oversee a small team that handles all things money for the fire. That includes everything from equipment procurement like helicopters and bulldozers to personnel costs and workers’ compensation claims. At the end of each day, his team puts together a finance package that gives a snapshot of how much it cost to fight the fire.

“Working in the finance section really gives you a different perspective,” Hawks said. “What is shown typically on TV is the firefighting resources out on the line suppressing the fire and working on the fire, but it’s a collaborative effort with all the people behind the scenes including the finance section to allow that to happen.”

Most fires are relatively small — less than 10 acres — and funding to fight them comes from Cal Fire’s regular operating budget, which was squeezed under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, leading to cuts in things like the number of crew members on fire engines. But Cal Fire says those cuts have been restored. New investments made by Gov. Jerry Brown have increased their budget by almost 50% in the last five years.

Big fires — the kind where Hawks would be dispatched — are paid for out of the Emergency Wildland Fire Suppression Fund. Often referred to as the Emergency Fund, it was established decades ago specifically to cover the extraordinary costs associated with fighting catastrophic fires.

In just three months, Cal Fire has spent more than $250 million of its $426.9 million emergency fund for the 2017-2018 fiscal year, intended to last until next June. If it runs out, Cal Fire can ask for additional funds from the state’s more than $1.4 billion budget reserve.

But that only solves part of the problem.

To read more on this story click here.

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