USA — When large wildfires driven by Santa Ana winds strike Southern California, state and local firefighters work together, sharing equipment and resources to battle the blaze.
But under some scenarios being sketched out in the face of $30 million in proposed budget cuts, the agreements and contracts that make that sharing possible could be disrupted.
The Orange County Fire Authority, for example, could find itself still responsible for a large area of county wild lands, but without the customary funding or assistance from the state.
“When there are large emergencies, we come in, and bring in all the resources — helicopters, air tankers, additional fire engines, fire crews,” said Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection that is better known as Cal Fire. “With this realignment, ultimately it could be their land, and the state would not necessarily come in.”
La Niña conditions are ripe for a potentially dry spring and summer, increasing fuel for large wildfires driven by fall winds.
“If we turn out in the next couple of months to get very little rain, or no rain at all, we could have a very busy season again,” Berlant said. “You can put together what happens if we have reductions and a busy season.”
Both Berlant and Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion of the county Fire Authority say it is too soon to draw any conclusions about the potential effects of the budget cuts.
Concepcion said he will be involved in preliminary discussions on the cuts at the agency this week.
“It’s way too early to speculate on how that is going to affect us,” he said. “We still need to figure all that out.”
The proposed cuts come in two forms: elimination of seasonal firefighters and “realignment,” or the shifting of responsibility for some wild land to local agencies.
The firefighting cuts would mean three firefighters per engine, instead of four. In 2003, Cal Fire increased the staffing to four firefighters per engine during peak wildfire season.
“Our response times would be the same,” Berlant said. “We would still have the same number of fire engines. The same number of stations would remain open. It just means less personnel on them.”
Still, such a reduction could mean as much as a 50 percent drop in firefighting efficiency, according to a study by Matt Rahn, research director for wildland fire projects at San Diego State University.
“Just by having that one person there, you actually gain, a lot of times, 50 percent more effective firefighting,” Rahn said.
The realignments would occur over a longer period, but their potential effects are raising concern as well.
Orange County, for instance, is under contract with the state to protect 110,000 acres of mostly private or unincorporated land that is part of a 113,000-acre state responsibility area.
The contract comes to about $4 million a year, Concepcion said.
Among the questions being asked: if that land became the county’s responsibility, would state money and assistance be withdrawn?
That could have enormous consequences for fires like the Santiago Fire, which burned more than 28,000 acres in Orange County and destroyed 14 homes.
“Fire can cost millions,” Berlant said. “The Santiago Fire in 2007 was all paid for by the state.”
What becomes of Orange County’s contract will be among many tough decisions being made by firefighting agencies across the state, Berlant said.
“We’re working to make it work,” he said. “But there’s a lot of ‘ifs’ out there.”