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In Areas Impacted By Butte Fire, Mistrust Over Fee Lives On

Chris Nichols / Capital Public Radio

Residents who were evacuated from their homes due to the Butte Fire in Amador and Calaveras counties watch a television news report Sept. 14, 2015 about Gov. Jerry Brown's press conference earlier in the day.

Chris Nichols / Capital Public Radio

Rural Californians are reeling from yet another destructive fire season. But that doesn’t mean they now support a controversial fire fee imposed several years ago by legislative Democrats and Governor Jerry Brown. 

Bags stuffed with Betsy Miller’s family photos and quilting fabric sit ready to go in her Sierra foothills home.

"I have that bag, and that bag full," Miller says.

Miller and her husband, Les, are retirees who live in Amador County. The Butte Fire forced them to evacuate last week. Now, they’re back home. But they’re not unpacking. She says she loves quilting too much to have her fabric go up in flames.

"Fires have a way of coming back," says Miller. "I want to pick and choose what I'm going to finish, not have a fire pick and choose what I'm going to finish."

Like many rural Californians, the Millers grudgingly pay the state an annual fire prevention fee of $117. It was passed four years ago to help the state close a budget deficit.  And even as the Butte and other mega-fires threaten their homes, rural residents say the mistrust over the fee lives on.

Les Miller calls it a state cash grab.

"They want more money, so they find a way to get it," he says. "Everybody is concerned about fire. So, they call it a fire fee."

A dozen homeowners interviewed this week say they remain opposed because the money doesn’t help fight fires. It only helps prevent them.

The Brown Administration declined comment. But a recent state report says the fee raises about $75 million a year for efforts like identifying evacuation routes and clearing brush.

Signs thanking firefighters dot highways across the foothills. But that gratitude doesn’t extend to the state leaders who imposed the fee. Vincent Campa also fled his home during the Butte Fire.

"I’ve also had people frustrated with the fee, not being able to afford it, living on fixed incomes," he says.

A taxpayers group has sued the state, alleging the fee is an unconstitutional tax. But a final ruling could take years.