On Thursday, July 7, Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation imposing a $150 annual fire protection fee on private property owners within State Responsibility Areas (SRAs), including the Hill.

Implementation of the fee will begin this fall and state officials expect to collect $50 million this fiscal year (July 2011-June 2012) and eventually $200 million annually.

Opposition to the bill exists. In his signing letter, the governor acknowledged the precarious nature of the fee’s longevity.

“A fee consistent with the ‘beneficiary pays principle,’ such as the one intended in this bill, can achieve significant general fund savings,” he wrote on July 7. “However as currently drafted, the revenues may not materialize.”

Throughout the state, local fire districts have objected to the imposition of a fee on properties that are within their jurisdictions. Although Idyllwild Fire Commissioner Ben Killingsworth wrote two weeks ago that CAL FIRE should do more inspections within the Idyllwild District, the Sonoma County Fire Chiefs Association wrote this week, “As the Bill is currently written, it does not distinguish SRAs that have fire districts from those without. As the implementation of the SRA fee moves forward, there will be a lot of details to work out including this one.”

According to the state Legislative Analyst Office, fire districts within incorporated areas would be exempt.

Other opposition is building against the fee’s approval by a majority of the state legislature rather than the two-thirds now necessary for new taxes. Assemblyman Kevin Jefferies (R-Lake Elsinore) and Idyllwild’s State Senator Bill Emmerson both expressed reservations over this aspect of the issue and foresaw an inevitable litigative imbroglio before any monies are collected.

In light of the state’s new fire prevention tax on rural communities, CAL FIRE canceled its contract with 10 Tanker Air Carrier of Adelanto on June 20.

“The ‘exclusive use’ contract has been cancelled but we still have an effective ‘call when needed’ contract in place,” said Janet Upton, CAL FIRE’s deputy director of communications. “Which means they are not paid to stand by and they have up to 24 hours to respond if available.”

The use of the very large air tankers has diminished over time. In 2007, the supertanker flew 36 days while involved in 15 fires. In 2010, the number of fires was only two, requiring four days of flight, according to Upton.

She also stressed that these large water carriers are not initial response equipment. The Hemet-Ryan Air base is nearby the San Jacinto Mountains and its full complement of air attack equipment is available and will be employed if necessary. Additionally, CAL FIRE has access to other very large air tankers if needed.

The statewide CAL FIRE air fleet is composed of 23 tankers, 9 helicopters and 13 air tactical planes and more than 100 additional fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft are on “call when needed” contracts, Upton said.