Gov. Brown calls for firefighting cut backs

January 13, 2011 7:14:58 PM PST
The state's budget problems are so serious, the new governor is calling for firefighting cut backs in his proposed budget. Gov. Jerry Brown contends it won't hurt CAL FIRE's ability to protect you from wildfires, but many others disagree.

The Brown administration looked at the 7-year-old policy of assigning four state firefighters to every engine versus having only three people. They found a similar success rate in corralling a fire before it burned more than 10 acres.

"There was virtually no difference in terms of response times. About 90 percent effectiveness in controlling those fires fairly swiftly," says H.D. Palmer from the California Department of Finance.

So in a move to whittle down the deficit, Brown proposes to go back to the three-person crew. That would save $34 million a year and eliminate 800 seasonal firefighting positions -- a move lauded by the Legislative Analyst report.

"These are tough fiscal times, and when we have budget crises like the one we're in, we have to do our part to make reductions," says CAL FIRE spokesman Daniel Berlant.

But one firefighters union says that extra person does make a difference; attacking a fire faster minimizes losses and saves lives.

"They can get the hose out there a whole lot more quickly. One study had it up 41 percent faster with four people versus three people," says Carroll Wills from the California Professional Firefighters organization.

CAL FIRE's original role was to protect forests, but has had to increasingly add property protection to their responsibilities, as county after county in California approves housing permits in the back country without regard to whether the agency can handle the added duties.

For years, state lawmakers and local leaders have tried to come up with ways to pay for firefighting. Efforts to add a surcharge to property insurance policies have failed and Brown doesn't want to go there.

"When you make those cuts, you are basically, in some ways, taking a risk that either: A - the agency next door will come and help you or B - that you won't have a lot of fires," says Wills.

But cities and counties have had their own budget problems, laying off firefighters and even shutting down some stations.