Defenses may take hit due to budget ills

Defenses may take hit due to budget ills

9 December 2007

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USA — California’s looming budget crisis threatens to crimp new spending to strengthen the state’s wildfire defenses.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and lawmakers will be challenged to close an estimated $10 billion budget gap just as demands grow for more air power, engines and firefighters in the wake of October’s deadly firestorms, which claimed 10 lives, 1,700 homes and 368,000 acres in San Diego County alone.

“The question is, how do we come up with more money for firefighting in a year we’re going to have a big budget problem?” said Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego. “How do we? I’m not sure at this point.”

State lawmakers will be in San Diego on Wednesday to launch the first in a series of hearings probing the state’s response to the recent blazes and whether better implementation of recommendations that grew out of the 2003 firestorms could have saved more homes and lives.

Separately, a congressional committee also will hear testimony from San Diego Fire Chief Tracy Jarman and others when it convenes tomorrow in Fallbrook.

The next week, a task force of fire officials will gather privately in San Diego to review proposals to improve the state’s firefighting system. Among those: more engines and personnel, better aerial support and paying more attention to prevention, from building standards to brush clearance.

Most of this has a price tag, increasing pressure on the governor and legislators as they work to establish budget priorities from among a lengthy list of other state responsibilities.

Schwarzenegger has asked his department chiefs, including the head of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, to respond to a potential 10 percent cut in their budgets. The governor is wrestling with his 2008-09 budget, due to be released next month, under the cloud of a stagnant economy and a still-slumping housing market.

“No decisions will be made until the finance numbers are in and the proposals are fully analyzed,” said Aaron McLear, a spokesman for the governor.

Sen. Dennis Hollingsworth, R-Temecula, said the Legislature must fully fund Cal Fire.

“The problem is, over the years we’ve squeezed out a higher priority, which is public safety,” he said.

Hollingsworth, a leading Republican on fire and budget issues, recommends that the state commit to a gradual increase in Cal Fire spending on equipment and other needs, recognizing that there is not enough money to immediately add all of the engines, aircraft and personnel necessary.

The budget for Cal Fire has grown slowly, seemingly reflecting a missed opportunity to vastly improve post-2003 defenses at a time when revenues were more healthy statewide and budget reserves more than tripled over time. Part of the spending caution, those involved say, can be linked to an unpredictable economy and years-long attempts to close a chronic budget deficit that greeted Schwarzenegger when he took office in November 2003.

In 2003-04, the state spent $772.5 million for fire protection. The next fiscal year, the amount fell slightly to $756 million. Spending increased a bit to $762 million in 2005-06. A bigger boost, to $958 million, came in 2006-07 – most of it stemming from a new union contract.

The budget swings can be attributed partly to the unpredictable nature of fires. In some years, the state has to tap emergency funds that are then rolled into the final spending figures. For example, the Cedar fire and others in 2003-04 cost $252 million.

The firefighting budget this year originally was estimated at $881 million, but that does not include all the costs of fighting the October firestorm and second outbreak in Malibu last month. The initial emergency firefighting fund already has been emptied.

Lawmakers say firefighters did a remarkable and courageous job defending Southern California in October, and that the toll could have been much higher if not for the lessons learned from the 2003 firestorms and a Reverse 911 alert system. Nevertheless, some of the more high-profile recommendations from a post-2003 blue-ribbon commission have not been fully implemented.

Most disturbing, critics say, is the slow pace of bringing in more engines. A commission recommended an additional 150 for the Office of Emergency Services. Only 19 have been bought, and none has been delivered.

On a more positive note, Schwarzenegger has provided a $10.8 million annual augmentation to buy more Cal Fire engines, independent of the equipment attached to the Office of Emergency Services. Cal Fire has added 109 engines at a cost of $253,000 each over the past three years. Some of those, however, are replacements.

“The idea that nothing happened is wrong,” said Terry McHale, who represents a state firefighters union.

Also, some critics have said the state has failed to aggressively pursue more aerial support as recommended by the first commission.

Kehoe and Hollingsworth agree that the state will confront some tough issues, and possibly take unpopular stands.

“All the easy things have pretty much been done,” Kehoe said. “Now it’s getting down to spending real money.”

Fees will no doubt get another look. The state enacted a disputed $35 parcel tax for some property in high-fire-risk areas in 2003, but backed off without collecting it.

“There’s enough money in a $103 billion budget already,” said Hollingsworth, dismissing any suggestions of a tax increase.

Hollingsworth, whose efforts to weaken environmental regulations so that property owners could do more defensive clearing suffered setbacks last year, said he plans to pursue similar legislation next year.

“If anyone dropped the ball, it was the Legislature,” he said.

Kehoe and Hollingsworth also are encouraging county officials to consolidate some of the numerous fire departments to provide better coordination and protection.

Robert Billburg of San Diego, a former probation officer, is hoping to persuade state officials to bring back an old program. He pitched reintroducing prisoner work camps; the last of five closed in 2001 in a cost-saving move. Prisoners cleared brush and created firebreaks as part of their sentences.

“It won’t keep fires from starting,” Billburg said. “It will help keep them from becoming catastrophic.”

Lawmakers on the joint Assembly-Senate committee meeting in San Diego plan to hear broad reviews from the state’s top firefighting strategists before taking up reforms, said Assemblyman Pedro Nava, D-Santa Barbara, the panel’s chairman.

Nava said the committee’s goal is to learn, not place blame. However, he said the committee will take a hard look at the response, particularly why there was a shortage of spotters to guide military pilots.

“We have an obligation to closely examine what happened, what went wrong and how to fix it,” Nava said.

A separate task force of fire officials, acting as the follow-up arm to the original blue-ribbon commission, will propose some of those fixes.

Chairman Mike Warren, Corona’s fire chief, has offered a series of recommendations.

Among them: year-round staffing and four firefighters on each engine in fire-prone regions. The governor has issued an executive order for that goal, which costs about $13.3 million annually. But firefighters would like to see it as law.

Warren said the state also should station more equipment in tinderbox areas, even if that means local agencies could use it. Some fire chiefs say they had crews eager to help, but no engines available.

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