CAL FIRE heads into fire season with fewer resources

May 3, 2011 7:43:04 PM PDT
CAL FIRE officials begin "Wildfire Awareness Week," knowing they'll embark on the coming season with 700 fewer firefighters on the front lines. "That's just the reality of the state right now," said Battalion Chief Jim Crawford. "We'll just do the best we can with what we have."

The wildfire season in California doesn't officially start for several weeks, but when it does, state and local firefighters will have to do the best they can with fewer resources. State and local fire officials say they will make do with what they have, but the timing of staffing cuts couldn't come at a worse time, given this could be a very busy fire season.

With California's lush grasses starting to dry out, CAL FIRE wants the public to get ready for what could be an intense wildfire season, given higher than average rainfall this past winter.

"Obviously this year we received above average amounts of precipitation across the state, and all that rain has led to an abundant amount of grass and brush that's very overgrown this year," said CAL FIRE spokesman Daniel Berlant.

The California Legislature passed $30 million in cuts to CAL FIRE for the coming budget year. That means engine staffing will be downsized from four to three, and 700 fewer seasonal firefighters will be on the front lines this summer.

"These are tough budget times and we understand that," said Berlant. "This isn't the best situation, but we know our men and women are going to stand up to the challenge and be able to respond with three people on an engine."

CAL FIRE will hire about 2,400 seasonal firefighters this summer to complement its force of 6,000 permanent employees. Last fire season, the agency employed more than 3,000 seasonal firefighters. CAL FIRE will also depend more on its 4,000 inmate crews and on local districts when a wildfire breaks out.

"We'll probably being relying a lot more on our cooperators, our local government resources," said Crawford.

Fire officials also want property owners to do their part.

"This is the perfect time where homeowners should go out and get rid of the weeds, anything that's been overgrown," said Berlant. "We require 100 feet of defensible space around homes, and having that clearance dramatically can increase a home's chance of surviving when a wildfire does strike."

Given limited staffing levels, CAL FIRE expects to rely more than ever on its partnerships with local agencies, but they, too, will be stretched thin due to budget cuts. As a last resort, Gov. Jerry Brown could hire back some of those seasonal firefighters by executive order, if the fire season gets especially bad.


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