INLAND: Officials confident despite fewer wildland fire resources

INLAND: Officials confident despite fewer wildland fire resources

12 May 2012

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USA — State and federal firefighting agencies had fewer resources this year when they entered a wildfire season marked by drier-than-normal brush. But officials said Friday that they are confident they can adequately protect Inland lives and property.

A February report from the U.S. Forest Service, citing a changing climate, said that the fire season in the West is, on average, 78 days longer than it was in the mid-1980s.

After a statewide snowpack of only 50 percent of normal this winter, about 20 percent of the state, including Riverside and San Bernardino counties, is in severe drought, said Tom Rolinksi, a Cal Fire meteorologist.

That increased fire threat has become a reality.

Through April, Cal Fire had responded to 800 wildfires this year, about 500 more than in the same period in 2011. Cal Fire began summer staffing April 23, about a month sooner than usual, spokesman Daniel Berlant said.

That Cal Fire staffing included 730 fewer seasonal firefighters — down to 2,300 — because of a $34 million reduction in the seasonal firefighting budget. Also, a firefighting DC-10 based in Victorville will no longer be immediately available.

“The system is in place like it always is and always has been,” Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said Friday at a Wildfire Awareness Week news conference at the Cal Fire base at Hemet-Ryan Airport. “We have the ability to bring local, state and federal engines to a fire. That ability has not been reduced.”

Two twin-engine air tankers that can carry 1,200 gallons of retardant or water, a water-dropping helicopter that can transport firefighters and a small airplane for fire managers are based at Hemet-Ryan in southwest Riverside County. A water-dropping helicopter is based in San Bernardino in the Prado Dam area.

With fewer firefighters, Cal Fire will staff engines with three people instead of four, meaning Cal Fire will have to pull in more engines to fight fires.

Previously, the DC-10 air tanker was available exclusively to Cal Fire, which continually staffed the plane. Now, the plane – if another agency is not using it — will be available on an on-call basis and Cal Fire will have to send staff to Victorville to scramble the plane. It can carry 12,000 gallons of retardant — 10 times the capacity of Cal Fire’s 23 twin-engine planes.

The DC-10 usually takes 12 to 24 hours to mobilize, whereas the other aircraft are available immediately.

Cal Fire does not expect its statewide complement of 4,300 inmate hand-crew members to be affected this year by the transfer of low-level offenders from the state to counties, known as realignment. However, Cal Fire is expecting to have 1,500 fewer inmates available to cut fire lines and pull hoses in 2013, Berlant said, and is working on contingency plans. There are eight inmate camps in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, each with three to five crews composed of about a dozen inmates each.

Jennifer Jones, a public affairs specialist for the Forest Service, said the agency will have about the same number of firefighters nationwide this year, 15,000, as in 2011.

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