USA — he three firefighters led by Capt. Venmer Deocariza drove their engine up to a wooded area off Skyline Boulevard in San Mateo County, unspooled their hoses and fired a blast of water 150 feet into the trees.
There were no flames on this day, but training is essential to this California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection crew. Deocariza’s Cal Fire unit covers parts of San Mateo and Santa Cruz counties and protects thousands of residents living among the trees on the outskirts of Woodside in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
But this tight-knit firefighting crew out of Skylonda Station, on Skyline Boulevard near the intersection with Highway 84, might have to abandon the hillside communities they protect because of California’s budget crisis.
Gov. Jerry Brown has proposed a plan that would shift to local fire departments the responsibility for fighting fires – and providing emergency aid – in wildlands where homes have sprung up in recent decades.
It is part of Brown’s attempt to reduce a $25.4 billion budget deficit over the next 17 months. The Democrat says the state will not pass off duties without providing sufficient means to pay for them, and his proposal sets aside $250 million to help local governments pay for the additional firefighting responsibilities.
But Bay Area fire officials wonder whether the money is enough to prepare local firefighters sufficiently to deal with the kind of wildland fire situations normally handled by Cal Fire. Important resources
Wildland fire experts are also afraid that state equipment and resources might no longer be available.
“Our biggest concern is we lose the ability to get special resources from Cal Fire, like helicopters, air tankers, dozers and hand crews,” said Daryl Louder, fire chief for the Contra Costa County Fire Protection District. “Right now we have a great cooperative mutual aid system. We just hope that nothing compromises that.”
The proposed shift in responsibility comes on top of a planned reduction in the number of seasonal state firefighters from 3,000 to 2,200. The plan, accomplished mainly by cutting from four to three the number of firefighters assigned to Cal Fire engines, is expected to save $34 million statewide over the next year.
San Mateo County is one of 145 counties and jurisdictions statewide that have contracts with Cal Fire to handle some firefighting duties. Reimbursement agreements with local governments authorize Cal Fire crews to enforce everything from fire safety standards to timber harvesting operations. More than fires
Besides fires, the Skylonda unit also responds to medical emergencies, human and animal rescues, traffic collisions, downed trees and power lines, hazardous-material spills and road closures.
During the recent training exercise, Deocariza admired the foamy torrent that splashed against a cluster of redwoods.
“This is the type of attack where, say, Neil Young’s warehouse is on fire and we don’t want the flames to catch onto other buildings,” he said. “We put a lot of water in a small area.”
The scenario involving the famous musician actually occurred Nov. 9 in San Carlos. Although the early morning warehouse fire illustrated how state firefighters are well equipped to handle structure fires, it also showed why the governor wants to change the system.
“Cal Fire is supposed to provide wildland fire protection and now, as a result of development, it is acting more as a local fire department,” said H.D. Palmer, a spokesman for the state Department of Finance. “Over the past decades there has been more encroachment on those wildland areas. That’s a cost driver for the state.”
About 5 million homes throughout California have been built in what is known as “wildland-urban interface zones.” Big houses dot the hills and jut out of wildland areas throughout the East Bay hills and in every county from Marin to Santa Clara.
These mostly high-end developments, which are often approved by county officials eager to bring in property tax revenue, have contributed to the devastating fires that often plague California, fire officials say.
Footing the bill
The sprawling growth is forcing state and federal taxpayers to foot the bill for communities that cannot afford to pay for the fire protection necessary to keep up with the growth. The U.S. Forest Service spends almost $1 billion annually protecting private homes adjacent to national forests.
State fire spending has increased steadily over the past two decades, in large part because of the need to protect homes in wildland areas, according to a state report on wildland fires. But fires aren’t the only problem. Cal Fire now responds to about 60,000 medical emergencies a year, Palmer said.
The idea behind Brown’s proposal is to force county planning officials to consider the cost of firefighting and other services when approving developments on the outskirts of towns.
“The potential for fire in these areas is something that clearly should be taken into account,” Palmer said. Cities lack the money
Ray Moritz, a San Rafael-based fire ecologist who specializes in fire hazard prevention and mitigation, said cities do not have the money to equip urban fire departments properly for wildland firefighting.
“Local and county departments are equipped for urban structure fires, so it would cost a lot for the proper equipment, training and gear,” Moritz said. “The tools are different, the clothing is different, the outfitting of hoses would be new, and different kinds of trucks would have to be used.”
San Mateo County stands to lose more than other counties because it relies so heavily on Cal Fire. If state firefighters pulled out, city and local volunteer departments would have to take over.
“I feel good about the local fire departments, but I don’t think they have the equipment,” said Becky Thatcher, who lives a mile south of the Skylonda fire station in an unincorporated area that has regularly been threatened by fire in recent years. Local volunteer firefighters often work in tandem with state crews, she said.
“If Cal Fire is cut, that would be a problem,” Thatcher said. “In the summer when it is dry, these fires can spread quickly.”
Tom Fogarty Jr., whose family owns the Thomas Fogarty Winery and Vineyards above Woodside, said he supports local control of government services, but the proposed reorganization of state fire protection services scares him. Cal Fire, he said, is always the first to respond in the area and would be in charge if a fire broke out in his vineyard.
“The concern is that the funding wouldn’t be there,” Fogarty said as he looked out over the mountains surrounding his winery. “You see all those canyons? If a fire got started down below, there would be nothing to stop it. All this upscale, low-density housing that people like so much would be in danger.”
Cal Fire numbers
31 million Wildland fire acres covered by Cal Fire crews.
228 Fire stations that Cal Fire operates.
5,600 Fires state firefighters typically respond to in a year.
145 Number of jurisdictions that contract with Cal Fire to handle firefighting duties.
800 Reduction in seasonal firefighters planned – from 3,000 to 2,200 – in order to save about $34 million a year.