OCEANSIDE, Calif. — Eternal flames honoring veterans across California are burning through money these days as the price of natural gas soars during the state’s energy crisis.
A number of veterans groups are worried that the flames will be dimmed to save money, even though cemetery and city officials mostly shrug off the increasing costs.
Compared to last year, it costs twice as much to fuel the flame at Eternal Hills Memorial Park in Oceanside, a mortuary and crematory in this military town on the outskirts of the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base.
“It is a tremendous expense,” said mortuary manager Ralph Gault.
The facility’s gas bill, which includes the cost of running the crematory, jumped from about $2,400 in March 2000 to nearly $4,800 last March. Eternal Hills explored raising prices to help pay energy bills but backed off when federal regulators said a surcharge could not be applied.
General manager George Hubbard said it still is a small price to pay for the flame, which is surrounded by flags and granite slabs bearing the names of local veterans from all branches of the military.
“It’s something I feel you do no matter what,” he said. “So the flame costs more. We eat it.”
California is seeing some of the nation’s highest natural gas prices this year. The state’s electricity shortage has forced natural gas-fired power plants to run full blast to keep the lights on.
Gas prices are up around the country. But at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, there has not been a significant increase in the $200 monthly cost of running the eternal flame that burns at the grave of President John F. Kennedy, said Barbara Owens, spokeswoman for the cemetery.
Washington Gas Co. said the cemetery is charged a fixed rate and uses the same amount of gas each month.
By comparison, it costs about $800 a month to fuel the eternal flame at a soldier’s monument in Pico Rivera, 10 miles southeast of Los Angeles.
The cost has more than doubled from a year ago, said Dale Sampson, president of the Pico Rivera Veterans Council. Local veterans split the cost with the city.
No one has threatened to shut off the flame, but Sampson is concerned that the hours it burns might be cut back to save money.
“It should be lit every day, because they fought every day,” said Sampson, who served in the Air Force in the early 1960s.
Sampson has asked the city to follow the lead of nearby communities La Mirada and Montebello and pick up the entire cost of the eternal flame.
However, the Pico Rivera City Council will only assume the cost if the flame is lowered or burns only on certain days, said Councilman Gregory Salcido.
Salcido said he was on the “lonely side” of a 4-1 vote against picking up the full tab and is trying to line up corporate sponsors to help.
La Mirada City Manager Greg Sloan said he would rather cut city spending on dinners, meetings and junkets than dim the flame that has burned for more than 20 years in an alcove near City Hall in honor of local residents who died in combat.
“We do not care about the gas costs,” Sloan said. “There were a lot of La Mirada residents that were killed, and it’s a way of remembering their names and thanking their families and keeping the names in our hearts.”