Union Democrat staff

With nearly nonstop rain and snow pelting foothills and mountains, fire seems an unlikely topic.

But it's on the front burner in Sacramento, where legislators are grappling with how to pay for often stratospheric firefighting costs in the face of the worst budget crisis in California history.

What's more, the copious 2010 rainfall could well spawn a crop of wildland grasses and brush that might make the fire season ahead particularly volatile.

The answer?

In the halls of the Capitol, it's something Gov. Arnold Schwarzegger calls the Emergency Response Initiative, or ERI. Simply put, it would tack a 4.8 percent surcharge on property insurance bills statewide - the average homeowner would pay about $50 more a year - raising some $400 million annually to defray the costs of fighting catastrophic fires.

No less than five bills including the provision have been introduced, two of which are still alive. Although similar legislation has failed in past years, and potential problems are numerous, the need for funding is clear.

Last year, wildfires statewide caused an estimated $721 million worth of insured loss and destroyed 859 homes. The toll was even steeper in 2007, with $2.6 billion in losses and 2,180 homes razed.

State firefighting costs peaked in 2008 at $525 million. As the U.S. Forest Service often spends millions fighting fires - as it did battling the Los Angeles area's devastating Station Fire last year - not all costs are borne by Sacramento.

Facing a $20 billion budget shortage, cash is at a premium and one serious blaze could cripple our already limping state. The incentive to find more money is considerable.

Still, aside from lobbying lawmakers, there's not a lot we here in fire country can do about the decisions of 120 Assembly members and state senators might make.

But, as any firefighter or prevention officer will tell you, there's a lot you can do to make your home and property safer. Now is the time to trim and clear the 100-foot defensible-space perimeter the state now requires around all homes.

Why wait until April or May, when temperatures and fire danger are climbing and Cal Fire inspectors are breathing down your neck? Instead start clearing now, when mowers and chain saws aren't likely to start a fire and you won't break a sweat.

Take a clue from conservation camp crews, which amid rain and sometimes even snow are hard at work on a Highway 108 Firesafe Council-sponsored clearing project along the highway near Twain Harte. Use those breaks in the storm action to get your property ready for summer.

Another benefit: If you maintain defensible space around your home, you won't risk your insurance carrier cancelling your policy - which would be far worse than paying a 4.8 percent surcharge.

And is that proposed surcharge justified? Or is it just another tax?

Matthew Bettenhausen, the administration's top emergency response official, points out that the charge amounts to no more than "a couple of coffees a month."

But foes counter that it amounts to a tax - not a fee - and can only pass with an almost unreachable two-thirds' vote of the Legislature. Others question whether city dwellers should be subsidizing those of us who live in the fire-prone wildland-urban interface. Insurance companies, naturally, have their own concerns.

Good questions on a crucial topic that really should be addressed - both on the ground and in the Capitol - amid the rainy season and away from the desperation and urgency that may come with fire season.