Kern County's rural residents will soon get bills for new fire fee

Kern County's rural residents will soon get bills for new fire fee »Play Video
Crews battle a wildfire in Kern County in a September 2011 file photo.
LAKE ISABELLA, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Thousands of Kern County homeowners are about to get bills for a new state fire fee. After about a year of discussion, rural property owners will soon have to pay up. The state will start mailing out bills the first week of August.

"Taxes now are killing me," Wofford Heights resident Jac Anderson complained. "And they want more?"

He doesn't like the new fee but said he's not willing to live in a city.

Kelso Valley resident Yvonne Pickerell said she thinks the fee makes sense.

"I think it's a good thing," she told Eyewitness News. "I'll pay more to have my house protected by the fire department."

She said she figures her home is pretty far from a fire station, so it costs more to protect it.

It's estimated some 40,000 residents in Kern County will pay the new rural fire fee. Those are people living in areas around Tehachapi, Lake Isabella and Frazier Park.

Find out if you live in a fee area >>

The State Responsibility Area Fire Prevention Fees were approved as part of the state budget last year. There's been debate since then on the amount residents will pay, but it's now been set at $150 a year per "habitable structure."

However, in areas that are already served by local fire services, residents will get a $35 discount. So, the tab will end up at $115 a year for homeowners. Kern County is an area like that, and so are most other affected residents statewide.

"Most people are in a fire protection district of some sort," state Forestry Board executive director George Gentry explained. "So most people will be paying $115 a structure."

It's expected the new fee will bring in $80 million statewide.

"The money generally goes for prevention services by the department," Gentry said. He said that could include inspections and removing vegetation to help state crews battle wildfires on public land.

"The mission of Cal Fire is wildland fire protection, so in a case of a wildland fire, what happens is Cal Fire is the one that responds," Gentry said.

But, again in Kern County, county fire crews protect homes. So, why are these rural residents asked to pay more to fight fires on state land?

"There are two types of fire fighting that we're talking about," Gentry said, both wildland fires and those to protect homes. He said having homes near wildland area adds to the expense for state crews to battle blazes on public land.

"They'll go in and try to save structures before they do that," Gentry said. "So that increases cost, because what you're going to end up doing is having resources deployed to protect structures that you wouldn't normally have had."

Gentry said there are some 31 million acres in the State Response Areas. He said those are state areas, but not federal land, and not part of any city. "The areas must have water or timber values that are important to the people of the State," Gentry added.

Homeowners can go to a state website to see if their address is in a State Responsibility Area.

The funds collected will go for the fire prevention work, but Gentry said what's left from that can then go back to the rural communities where residents are now paying the new fee. The money can come back in the form of grants.

"If you have a fire safe council, for example, that grant money can go back to the fire safe council to help augment their local activities," Gentry said.

But, the money will go out from the communities in a double punch. Gentry said the State Board of Equalization will start sending out bills the first week of August for last year, and soon after that home-owners will get another bill for the current year's fee.

"It's really a bad sequence of timing," Gentry said. "But, that's the way the legislation was drawn up."

Eyewitness News has heard from residents in outlying areas who are upset over the new fee, and think it's unfair and a burden, especially on senior citizens. But, some homeowners say the extra cost comes with the territory.

"I think it's kind of a necessity," Lake Isabella resident Margaret Olson said. "Because we have fires and dangers of fires."