Staffing decreases to Cal Fire engine crews raise concerns

Staffing decreases to Cal Fire engine crews raise concerns

01 July 2011

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USA — California’s fire crews are ramping up to peak staffing levels this weekend as the state braces for another potentially disastrous wildfire season.

But even at full strength, Cal Fire will employ 730 fewer seasonal firefighters than it did last year, thanks to deep budget cuts linked to the state’s economic troubles. That means three-person engine crews instead of four, a change that has fire officials and lawmakers concerned.

Cal Fire is facing a $34 million cut to its firefighting budget from spending levels approved last year. The agency will retain 2,200 seasonal positions to augment roughly 3,300 full-time firefighters, Cal Fire spokeswoman Janet Upton said. Last year there were 2,930 seasonal firefighters.

“We understand that tough times call for tough cuts,” Upton said. “It’s going to be a challenge, but the men and women of our department will rise to the challenge. It’s what we do.”

She said all of the state’s fire stations and air bases will be open, and all of the agency’s 336 engines will be operational.

California has had four-person crews since 2003, the same year massive firestorms swept across much of Southern California. Shifting to a four-person crew system was among the recommendations made by a state blue ribbon fire commission created in the aftermath of the fires.

In his January budget proposal, Gov. Jerry Brown sought to justify the return to three-person crews by arguing that the additional staffing since 2003 did not make Cal Fire more effective.

“Since 2003, Cal Fire has contained 92.2 percent of wildfires to less than ten acres,” he wrote. “This wildfire containment rate is similar to Cal Fire’s historic trends.”

But Terry McHale, public policy director for the state firefighters union, said shrinking the size of fire crews would add to the already intense physical toll firefighters face on the front lines of fast-moving blazes.

“Losing a firefighter makes it much more difficult to do the job,” McHale said. “It’s going to be taxing…firefighters are going to be doing more with less.”

McHale said he was heartened that Brown left open the option of returning crew sizes to four via an executive order in the event of large-scale fires. And while McHale acknowledged the economic realities facing California, he said leaders in Sacramento should carefully weigh the risks of cuts to public safety funding against the costs associated with a major fire.

“What you think you’re saving could go up in one afternoon,” he said.

Upton stressed that commanders would have access to as many crews and as much resources as they need, both from within Cal Fire and from local and federal fire departments that have mutual aid agreements with the state.

Temperatures are expected to soar across the region throughout the next few days, reaching as high as 105 in Inland valleys and 112 in desert areas, according to The National Weather Service, which issued a hazardous weather announcement. Combined with low humidity, the conditions are ripe for wildfire.

Over the course of the summer, Inland Southern California’s fire danger is expected to be on par with an average year, according to predictions issued by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

But even an average year presents the possibility of catastrophic fires on the order of the ones that tore across the region in 2003, 2006 and 2007, blackening hundreds of thousands of acres, destroying scores of homes, threatening entire communities and killing several people.

On top of that threat, the unusually heavy precipitation over the past winter and spring resulted in a bumper crop of vegetation that is now turning brown and dry.

“There’s grass in the desert and that usually doesn’t happen,” Upton said. “So we’re concerned about that.”

Fires are inevitable. And when they do start, the reduction in engine staffing will make it more difficult to stop them early, Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries said.

“I’m sure that somewhere in California this reduction in staffing is going to cause a fire to grow at a much more rapid rate and increase costs to put the fire out,” Jeffries, R-Lake Elsinore, said.

Staff writer Jim Miller contributed to this report.

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