More firefighters leave for Santa Barbara

May 6, 2009 10:46:21 PM PDT
More than two dozen people and four engines from the Bay Area are helping fight the Jesusita fire in Santa Barbara. With those crews leaving, it won't leave the Bay Area unprotected, but what happens if the governor follows through on Tuesday's threat and cuts CalFire's budget? It's a bad combination of an early fire season, drought, and budget cuts.

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As the fire grew wildly Wednesday night, 500 additional firefighters from all over were called in to help in Santa Barbara.

A strike team made up of crews from Alameda and Contra Costa counties, San Francisco and East Bay Regional Parks left a short time ago. They plan on getting there by 5 a.m. on Thursday and could be on the fire lines within a couple hours after that.

Alameda County Battalion Chief Dan O'Hara says his team is excited to help out.

"They understand the need down there. The resources down there can get overtaxed and they're looking for help. And if we can get down there and help out the other communities, we're very willing to do that," says Battalion Chief O'Hara.

This is the earliest anyone can remember strike teams heading out to fight a wildfire. The deputy fire chief in Dublin coordinated the effort and it does come just as the governor is threatening to cut CalFire, the state fire agency.

Just yesterday the governor talked about the possibility of eliminating more than 1,700 state firefighting jobs to deal with the state's budget crisis. The Santa Barbara fire is a graphic reminder of how valuable those crews are.

"Last year I think we sent our first crews out in late May, early June and here it is, not even Mother's Day," says Deputy Chief David Lord from the Alameda County Fire Department.

Earlier on Wednesday, Deputy Chief Lord coordinated the send off of strike teams from the Bay Area to Santa Barbara. Crews from Hayward, Fremont, Pleasanton, Livermore, Alameda County and Contra Costa County left their stations on Wednesday afternoon.

Lord says there is no drop in daily staffing here at home because off-duty firefighters are called in. Regardless, if the governor's threatened state cuts became a reality during this fire season that could change.

"At some point somebody in a position much higher than mine would have to determine how many resources we can offer up and how many will need to stay home," says Lord. When asked if they could just say no and not go he answered, "It's hard for firefighters to say no. I mean when we see people up and down the state in need of our assistance."

U.C. Berkeley forestry expert Dr. Bill Stewart, Ph.D., thinks most voters would support paying more for essential fire services, but don't understand that financing comes out of the state's general fund.

"Because we sign the budget in the summer right as fire season is ramping up, it's hard to discuss the issue of who should bear how much of the cost, when by the time they start negotiating we've already had one or two very large fires in Southern California. It kind of pushes the issue off the table another year," says Stewart.

This Santa Barbara fire comes before CalFire has a chance to reach its seasonal staffing levels. So that means the strike teams from the Bay Area and elsewhere are essential.

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