U.S.A.: Budget shortfall, drought real bad mix

USA:Saving money, playing with fire

16March 2005

The Tribune

Faced with budget cuts, the California Department of Forestry is looking at grounding each of its 23 air tankers one day a week through this year’s fire season.

Although the proposal would save $1 million, it would be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Here’s why.

Local, state and federal firefighters are forecasting a particularly nasty fire season this summer because of an abundance of grass caused by above-average rainfall.

That makes CDF officials nervous — a concern that’s heightened when you consider thefollowing:

• 80 youth corrections firefighters won’t be on the fire lines this year because of budget cuts last year.

• The U.S. Forest Service will be down to about a quarter of its tanker fleet this summer because of mechanical problems — and none of those planes will be based in California.

All of these factors give critical importance to the two Paso Robles-based tankers, which can reach a fire anywhere in the county within 15 minutes — a critical time frame for control and suppression.

If a wildland fire breaks out on a day when one of those planes is down, says Paso CDF Battalion Chief Nick Hustedt, backup hand crews on the ground could take anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour to reach the scene. If the flames can’t be held to 10 acres or less in those first few minutes, costs can escalate quickly.

“If that fire extends to three or four days and burns around 5,000 acres or more,” says Hustedt, “it can cost $1 million a day” to put it out.

If conflagrations like the county’s infamous 78,000-acre Las Pilitas Fire in 1985 and the 49,000-acre Highway 41 Fire in 1994 take off and consume rural homes, costs can run into the millions.

Is the benefit of a $1 million cut in tanker service worth the risk of millions in damage and suppression costs?

There are those who think so. The argument can be made that the state’s budget has to be brought into balance somehow, and cuts of a million here and a million there can add up to real savings.

That’s true. But with this year’s heavy fuel load, reduced number of firefighting hand crews and lack of a supporting federal tanker force, the benefits of keeping a CDF tanker fleet at full force may well prove to be the more fiscally responsible route.


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