California officials are pushing hard — some say too hard — for money to recover the costs of fighting wildfires.
For the last eight years, the state has more aggressively gone after businesses and individuals it blames for starting wildfires, but now some of those targeted are pushing back.
The state's Civil Cost Recovery Program is considered such a financial success that Gov. Jerry Brown is asking lawmakers to expand the unit's staff of lawyers, fire accountants and investigators from 14 to 24.
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials say the unit goes after people who spark wildfires, costing millions of dollars to put out. They also say cost-sharing agreements with federal and local agencies require the state to pursue money from those who start fires.
But state Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Gerber — who represents a vast rural area in far Northern California — says the state should put limits on its attempts to recover money.
"It's clearly being abused," he said. "The state is going to try to identify as many sources of revenue for government as it possibly can, and that's what's driving it."
The state pays the costs of emergency firefighting out of its general fund, with annual costs over the last decade averaging $249 million, officials said.
The state recovered less than $2 million annually from 2001 through 2003, but recouped $35.6 million in 2010-1.
"Our ultimate goal is to return the most money to the taxpayers who paid to suppress these fires," said Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton.
Environmentalists, often at odds with timber companies on a number of issues, support Cal Fire's drive to collect money.
"If they cause forest fires, they bear the burden of the cost of those fires, and not the public, especially if they are doing activities that increase the chance of fires," said Susan Robinson, an activist with Ebbets Pass Forest Watch.
But some, especially those in the timber industry, are fighting back in court.
The state is seeking $15 million from Sierra Pacific and others for firefighting costs, legal fees and interest for a fire in 2007 that burned 65,000 acres.
Sierra Pacific and its subcontractors argue that the state manipulated evidence and targeted deep-pocketed businesses.
The defense contends that the explanation for the blatant and intentional failure of Cal Fire to fully investigate other potential causes of the Moonlight Fire is that its investigators were driven to place blame on Sierra Pacific, a 'deep pocket,'" Richard Linkert, an attorney for another defendant, wrote in a Jan. 31 court filing.
Sierra Pacific lead attorney William Warne has declined to comment on the case.