Is fire season out of control?

Is fire season out of control?

6 July 2008

published by

USA — From a base camp at Fort Hunter Liggett where he plots maps for strike teams battling infernos in the Big Sur wilderness, Cal Fire Capt. Allan Lippe struggles with the fatigue of nonstop 15-hour shifts and the knowledge that firefighters are staring at a 2008 fire year that threatens to grow into one of the most drawn-out and dangerous ever.

“When it starts this early, you talk to the wife and warn her that it will be a long summer,” said Lippe, one of more than 300 firefighters from the San Diego region now on fire lines from Big Sur to the Oregon border.

That alarm is spreading across California. The sheer extent of the hundreds of lightning-caused fires raging in the state since June 20 has strained staffing, equipment and budgets – long before the seasonal arrival of hot Santa Ana winds that can whip up potentially deadly blazes across Southern California.

“Honestly, is California ready for the Santa Anas? Are we fully prepared? The answer is clearly no,” said Carroll Wills, who represents California Professional Firefighters, a union.

A firefighter walked through brush burning in the Santa Ynez Mountains near Goleta Saturday. More than 20,000 firefighters and support personnel have been battling blazes up and down California for the past two weeks. Photo: Phil KleinThe rash of fires illustrates the enormous fiscal and manpower challenges ahead as the state is being forced to accept that there is no longer a limited fire season. Instead, drought and population growth have made catastrophic wildfires a year-round threat that demands fully staffed fire crews at all times.

Beyond the human toll, fire sieges devour vast amounts of the state government’s dwindling cash reserves.

Last month, the state spent $82.4 million fighting wildfires – the same amount it had budgeted for all of fiscal year 2007-08, which ended Monday.

Of course, the state spent much more than budgeted last year, which included October’s catastrophic firestorms in San Diego County. It had to draw on $392.8 million in emergency funds in 2007-08, a record amount. In contrast, the largest previous withdrawal from the emergency reserve was $252.3 million in 2003-04, also a period when the San Diego region and other parts of Southern California were devastated by fires.

In recent weeks, more than 20,000 firefighters and support personnel have been part of the current battle. Of those, 6,625 are attached to Cal Fire, 5,743 are federal forces, private contractors supplied 4,249 and 2,503 were deployed by local agencies, according to state figures issued Wednesday. Reinforcements have poured in from 40 states, including military teams and aircraft.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Friday sent an additional 200 National Guard troops to the front lines to reinforce defenses. The order brings the number of National Guard troops called out to 400 – the first time they have been committed to firefighting on the ground in the past 30 years.

“There are more firefighters fighting the fires today than the number who fought the Southern California fires last year,” said Ruben Grijalva, director of Cal Fire.

The escalating costs of defending California from flames will increase pressure on Schwarzenegger and lawmakers wrestling with various proposals to impose new fees to add crews, equipment and prevention programs.

Significantly, at least 965 of the 1,783 California fires broke out in state-responsibility areas that rely on Cal Fire for defense, where resistance to new fees has been stiff. Opponents believe they already pay for protection through general taxes or assessments imposed by local agencies. In addition, Republican lawmakers have branded as a tax the governor’s proposal toincrease property insurance premiums by $6 to $12 a year to pay for more fire protection.

Schwarzenegger, a Republican, has called the fire-fees-versus-taxes dispute “irrelevant” and “nonsense dialogue.” The ideological stalemate threatens the safety of all Californians, the governor implied.

“When you save lives and you save property . . . you’re not worried about what Sacramento is talking about,” Schwarzenegger said in Big Sur last week, speaking through a pall of smoke.

Corona Fire Chief Mike Warren, chairman of an independent task force advising the governor and Legislature on fire issues, was equally blunt in a phone interview from his office in Riverside County.

“It is imperative that we get real about this threat,” Warren said.

Although the Bush administration was quick to respond to California’s pleas for aid by sending in firefighters and planes, the state-federal relationship may soon be tested over money.

The Schwarzenegger administration has expressed disappointment with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, suggesting that the president’s emergency declaration last month did not go far enough in guaranteeing future aid to all damaged areas.

While FEMA will pick up the costs of the federal firefighting efforts, California officials are concerned that not all reimbursable costs to the state, local agencies and residents will come through. For example, specific declarations are still needed for debris removal and watershed restoration. Checks to help families and businesses rebuild are also not covered – yet.

“The people issue has not been addressed,” said Henry Renteria, director of California’s Office of Emergency Services.

Renteria is hopeful that FEMA will come around, once the fires are doused and the damage tallied.

Also, the state is not convinced that FEMA will cover $34 million in costs associated with fires fought in May and early June in Northern California. FEMA has issued a few grants related to those fires, but the president’s recent declaration covered only the period after June 20.

“We are in discussions with our FEMA representatives to make sure we address all the needs of all the people of California,” Renteria said.

Renteria said he has already approved $100 million in spending from the state treasury.

FEMA Administrator David Paulison said the agency has pledged $50 million to the federal side of the firefighting effort. “The president has committed to stand by California all the way to the end,” he said.

Paulison said he wants to “make sure we provide whatever resources we can legally provide.”

Ironically, the state’s good fortune in having the wildfires burn in sparsely populated areas could limit federal aid. FEMA has thresholds in terms of the numbers of homes and businesses affected. In California’s case, “several hundred” homes would have to be lost before individual assistance checks of up to $28,800 for the underinsured and uninsured can be issued, Paulison said.

“We’ll do damage assessments to see if they qualify,” he said.

Despite the state’s $15.2 billion revenue shortfall and the lack of a final budget for the new fiscal year, Grijalva, the Cal Fire chief, said there are no plans to pinch pennies. The governor “told me, ‘If there’s resources you need, you’ll get them,’ ” he said.

In Congress, a week before the rash of freak lightning strikes that ignited more than 1,000 fires across California, a Senate committee was warned that shorthanded U.S. Forest Service crews could be overwhelmed by needs across the country.

“You’ll never run out of resources, but there will be a time when resources will not be available as expediently as you would like. Fires could grow in intensity and size,” Casey Judd of the Federal Wildland Fire Service Association union said in a telephone interview.

More than 300 state firefighters have been deployed out of the San Diego region to aid Northern California. In addition, 150 inmates from local conservation camps have been dispatched. Shifts run either 12 or 24 hours over 14-to 21-day cycles.

Although the current fight has thinned ranks, Grijalva said local defenses are not compromised.

“That doesn’t mean all the fire stations are empty,” he said, referring to the reports of large-scale deployments. In Southern California, he said, 37 percent of the crews and 65 percent of the engines are ready to respond to local emergencies.

“Everyone’s on duty,” said Howard Windsor, a San Diego-based Cal Fire unit chief. Days off have been canceled, and many firefighters are voluntarily postponing vacations. Mutual-aid pacts also are in effect.

The sweeping call-out is taking a personal toll as firefighters leave their families behind, travel farther and work longer shifts.

“When you take this job, you have to do what you have to do,” said Cal Fire’s Lippe, speaking by phone from his post at Fort Hunter Liggett, an Army Reserve training center in southern Monterey County. “I have little kids. The hardest thing is being away from them.”

San Diego County-based Cal Fire Capt. Nick Schuler recently has been home to spend time with his family after 29 straight days on the job, including turns in the Madera and Chico areas.

As he prepared to head back out today, Schuler said the sacrifice has been worth it.

“We’ve been able to save a lot more than we lost,” he said.

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