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A wall of flames filled the sky, and scores of families fled their homes this week as a wildfire raged in Lake County.

Crews are rapidly gaining ground, but the Wye fire is likely to burn for days. At its peak, a round-the-clock suppression effort involved 1,100 firefighters and 180 fire trucks, bulldozers and aircraft. At least two homes burned as the fire rolled across thousands of acres of dry brush and oak-studded grassland.

When the firefighting costs are tallied, they'll be counted in millions.

Wildfires are a fact of life in California, regular — albeit random — reminders of the risks that accompany life in wilderness areas.

More than 800,000 people live in areas protected by the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. From eastern San Diego County to the Sierra foothills to the North Coast, Cal Fire is responsible for 31 million acres in 35 counties. Geographically, that's about a quarter of the state. But these predominantly rural areas are home to just 2 percent of California's 37 million residents.

As more people have moved into rural areas over the past 10 years, Cal Fire's budget has nearly tripled, topping $1 billion, even as many other state services have been cut back because of chronic budget deficits.

State taxpayers traditionally have subsidized firefighting costs in Cal Fire's territory. Beginning this week, however, the state is billing residents up to $150 a year to offset Cal Fire's costs for protecting private property in its responsibility areas.

The new policy is controversial, and its evolution is a case study of blundering by politicians in Sacramento. But that doesn't mean it's unfair.

Some adjustments are needed, but a fire protection fee is sound public policy.

The fee places the burden of paying for fire protection on people who benefit from the service, just as those who directly benefit are assessed the cost of a new water project and highway construction and maintenance costs are paid with taxes on gasoline and diesel fuel.

In cities and special districts, residents pay for fire protection through their local taxes. They also help pay for Cal Fire with their state taxes, though they don't get reciprocal help from rural residents.

The state fire fee is expected to generate $85 million a year, freeing an equal amount for deficit reduction or other public services. People who pay a parcel tax or other fee to a local fire district that shares jurisdiction with Cal Fire will get a $35 discount on the $150 fee.

Local fire chiefs are protesting, but their concern is that a state fee might make it harder to get voter approval for new local taxes. That's a matter of politics, not fire prevention.

A fire protection fee isn't a new idea. It was recommended more than 10 years ago by the state's nonpartisan legislative analyst and pursued by Govs. Gray Davis and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

To get around a two-thirds vote requirement, Gov. Jerry Brown and legislative Democrats restricted revenue from the fee to fire prevention.

A legal challenge is a near certainty, but the fee should stand. Brown and the Legislature still should rework the fee so money is set aside for fire suppression, an ongoing need in rural California. Ask the residents of Lake County.

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