HOW PREPARED IS EAST COUNTY FOR THE NEXT WILDFIRE? BUDGET CUTS BURN SOME LOCAL AGENCIES

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”It’s outrageous and it’s irresponsible. That’s cold, that’s hard, that’s the truth. There are many other areas where life is not at stake.” –Leonard Villareal, San Miguel Fire District spokesman, on state budget cuts' impact on fire protection.

 

An East County Magazine special report

 

By Miriam Raftery

 

June 11, 2009 (San Diego’s East County) – Deep cuts in the state’s budget are having an impact across California, forcing many counties and cities to make painful reductions in public services. This week, East County Magazine spoke with fire officials and civic leaders throughout our region to assess where cuts have been made—and what steps are being taken to protect the public before the next major fire strikes. While some expressed confidence, others voice fears that budget slashing has gone too far and could place lives or property at risk.

 

 

ENGINES AND MANPOWER

 

“Barring some miracle, effective July 1st we are closing one engine company. That’s nine firefighters off the street,” said Leonard Villarreal, public information officer at San Miguel Fire District, which services the Spring Valley and Mount Helix areas. Currently, Station 15 houses two engines, including a 100-foot-long hook and ladder truck. But after July 1, the district will no longer have manpower to dispatch two engines at once. “When the bell rings, we’ll decide which rig to drive,” said Villareal, adding darkly, “If the Governor takes 8% from us and everyone else, it could get much, much worse.”

 

Villarreal calls the state’s budget cuts “outrageous and irresponsible,” adding, “That’s cold, that’s hard, that’s the truth. There are many other areas where life is not at stake.” He urged area residents to take action. “This is the best time to fire a letter to your government and everyone else and say don’t do this, because it is irresponsible.”

 

He added, “People aren’t thinking about what can happen with their insurance, especially in Mt. Helix.” Cal-Fire maps identify Mt. Helix as a danger zone because of dry brush—a problem worsened by drought and water rate increases that have led some area homeowners to let landscaping die.

 

San Miguel Fire District has asked residents to approve a fire fee increase, a move that has sparked controversy and strong opposition from taxpayers who want to see cuts in salaries and overhead rather than being asked to pay more for fire protection. But the district has already cut $800,000 this fiscal year, including $200,000 in voluntary employee give-back, Villareal said. “There’s nothing left to cut but bone.”

 

Whether or not the fire fee is approved by district residents,, Villareal revealed, “One of my goals is to create an East County Fire Foundation.” The Foundation would raise funds to improve fire protection locally “We’ll do everything from concerts to golf tournaments to selling brownies,” he pledged.

 

Santee Fire Department is in healthier shape due to substantial property tax and sales tax revenues, though those sources have declined with the weak economy.

 

“We’ve been fortunate so far in that we’re not looking at any cutbacks in our personnel, equipment or service level,” said Deputy Chief Richard Mattick. But with more cutbacks slated at year’s end, the district faces cuts in training programs for the next fiscal year. “We’ve had to tighten our belts in anything we can, “ he said, adding that replacement of vehicles has been deferred for a year. “Most of the other agencies are hanging on the edge right now waiting to see what happens…Our big concern is how much the state is going to raid the cities again.”

 

Lemon Grove, La Mesa and El Cajon are looking at ways to expand a cooperative arrangement beyond dispatching. “The three City Councils have directed city staffs to explore a stronger relationship,” said Lemon Grove City Manager Graham Mitchell. For example, La Mesa and Lemon Grove currently share a duty chief at night to assure that a senior staffer is on hand if a fire starts, and may expand that shared duty with El Cajon.

 

“We actually did cut salaries, but not services,” Mitchell said of Lemon Grove’s fire protection status.

 

Monica Zech, spokesperson for the City of El Cajon, said El Cajon has avoided painful cuts in fire services thanks to voters who approved a sales tax increase in November. “Because of Prop J, as far as I know we haven’t had to make any cuts yet.”

 

La Mesa, where voters also passed a sales tax increase, has also avoided personnel cuts in fire services, said city manager Sandy Kerl. But she said, “We are quite concerned about what the state is doing and their cutbacks on firefighters as we enter the fire season…How much more will we be called for mutual aid? Given the state’s budget problems, will they be able to reimburse us? “ The regions’ fire chiefs will hold a meeting this Friday to discuss economic impacts of the budget crunch on the current fire season, she disclosed.

 

In East County’s rural areas, fire protection has long been left to volunteer fire departments since the “County abandoned fire protection 30 years ago,” noted Craig Williams, public affairs officer at Campo Fire & Rescue. Last year the County opted to move toward creation of a county fire authority and boosted funding for some County Service Area (CSA) fire departments.

 

“We have increased funding and equipment from the County,” said Williams. Last year, Campo Fire & Rescue received $74,000—a $30,000 increase from the past. In addition, the County has agreed to pay a stipend of about $63,000 per volunteer fire department. But Williams observed, “Keep in mind that we are roughly the same size department as Alpine, which has roughly a $3 million budget, with the same number of engines and personnel. We’d like to have enough money to have a paid department.” Presently, the department has a 30% attrition rate because once recruits complete training in Campo, they take paid jobs in fire departments elsewhere.

 

The department does have new engines. But Williams noted, “Every engine we’ve got, we’ve got through grants—federal grants, [tribal] gaming grants, one from Dianne Jacob with her discretional money.”

 

AIR POWER

 

“Cal-Fire has airpower similar to last year and the same number of engines,” Captain Nick Schuler reported. “In fact they have added firefighters so there will be a four-man crew on every engine.”

 

On Wednesday, a joint agency press conference was held to showcase federal, state and county airpower. Cal-Fire planes include 1960’s era Grumman S2-T aircraft for dropping fire retardants. “These once sat on the decks of aircraft carriers; they were used to attack submarines among other uses,” firefighter Bryan Watte told East County Magazine. A Special Ops Ov-10 Bronco air attack plane is also in Cal-Fire’s fleet. The plane takes the lead in telling other pilots where to go during a fire situation and can land on uneven terrain.

 

The federal government has 17 firefighting air tankers available to fight fires in our region, down from 18 last year due to a crash. Federal air power includes aircraft from the Navy, National Guard, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. San Diego Fire has Copter 1 and Copter 2, though one has reportedly been down for maintenance.

 

“Our area has no super scoopers this fire season,” Watte confirmed. Last year, two super scoopers helped battle blazes locally. But Watte noted, “Possibly these could be brought back later in the year.”