By Jeremy Los
Editor Miriam Raftery also contributed to this report
January 14, 2011 (San Diego’s East County)--Governor Jerry Brown has laid out his budget plans for 2011-2012. One program on the list to be slashed by the budget axe is Cal-Fire--a cut which could imperil East County during fire season.
Brown seeks to take a chunk out of the state's massive $25.4 billion budget gap by cutting Cal-Fire by some $30 million. Crews for each engine would drop from four to three, plus 800 seasonal firefighting positions would be eliminated. The burden for fighting wildfires will be pushed more upon local fire departments as the Governor looks to lower the costs for Cal-Fire.
Brown also reportedly aims to reduce the state’s areas of responsibility for lands located between federal forests/other federal lands and cities, which would include much of East County. Here, that could mean that local rural firefighting agencies, in many cases rural departments staffed by volunteer firefighters or small cities already facing budget squeezes, would be forced to shoulder more responsibilities in battling wildfires as well as responding to accidents and medical emergencies that Cal-Fire handles.
Julie Hutchison, batallion chief and public information officer with Cal-Fire,advised ECM that no stations will be cut and no engines are expected to be lost. But she said, "Significant changes will be coming to the staffing on engines. Cuts will drop staff from four to three on each engine during peak fire season." Hutchison said staffing cuts would be implemented immediately if the budget is approved, but said its premature to address other potential cuts. "Firefighters will rise to the challenge," she said, adding that they will do their best with more limited resources. "They are not going to quit fighting wildfires,"she assured.
But smaller crews could mean potentially deadly delays in bringing major conflagrations under control. Unlike other major cities, San Diego County has no cohesive fire department, though strides have been made toward regional consolidation.
Even with Cal-Fire’s army of support, the 2007 wildfires fueled by 100 mph winds in some rural areas of East County swiftly spread to become the worst fire in our region’s history, prompting evacuations all the way to the coast in areas such as Solana Beach and Del Mar, also burning thousands of homes and businesses.
Cutting the number of firefighers per engine from four to three may be penny-wise but pound foolish, as studies of agencies that don't have four-man crews have found. As KPBS reported late last year, a recent San Diego State University wildfire staffing study says adding a single firefighter to every fire engine could save the state $41 million a year. An extra set of boots on the ground could also save lives and help crews gain control of wildfires more quickly, according to the study, which found that increasing an engine crew from three to four firefighters improves the efficiency in laying 1,200 feet of hose by 41 percent, or 8.5 minutes.
Local voters have repeatedly voted down ballot measure that would have increased local firefighting funds—leaving local officials without the ability to dramatically beef up firefighting resources to match the void that would be left if the state slashes funding for Cal-Fire services locally.
In a region that has been ravaged by wildfires numerous times, the reduced number of firefighters on the ground is a scary thought to some area residents, including many fire survivors who have already lost homes to the flames.
“The costs of not providing adequate fire protection are simply too high. The state and the region learned this firsthand in 2003 and 2007 during the wildfires. It is pay now or pay later,” says Supervisor Dianne Jacob.
Noting that the state expects local governments to provide some services now provided by Cal-Fire, she added, "We don’t yet know whether the State will provide local governments with adequate funding to perform those services. There must be adequate funding and I can guarantee that the County will fight to ensure just that." But if the state cuts programs that the County administers, Jacob warned, "We will have no choice but to make corresponding cuts."
While this is still a preliminary plan for the budget, many East County residents are already reacting with dismay and anger. For those who have seen the devastation of wildfires first hand, this only continues raise their concerns.
“The construction of the Sunrise Powerlink through our most fire prone regions of the county will significantly increase the likelihood of catastrophic fires, and now they are cutting the funds to fight wildfires. The outcome will be devastating for our region,” says Laura Cyphert, co-founder of the East County Community Coalition.
Donna Tisdale, chair of Boulevard’s planning group, reacted with shock. “Are you freaking kidding me?” she responded in an e-mailed reply to ECM. “This is just another big slap in the face for East County. The state helped SDG&E, and others, force all these massive wind turbine and powerline projects through fire-prone East County, jacking up the fire risk while reducing fire fighting capability… and at the same time SDG&E promises to shut off our power when the wind blows too hot and too much. And now, the new governor/state has the gall to propose CUTS to the budget for firefighting services in East County?”
Tisdale also disputed the state’s conclusions that Boulevard’s Volunteer Fire Department is adequately staffed to protect her community against a devastating firestorm. “What a crock!” the long-time planning chair exclaimed.
Firefighting wasn’t the only item to get the budget axe. The proposed budget also calls for cuts in services ranging from healthcare to education.
“The Governor’s budget proposal is a heavy dose of reality that asks for sacrifice from every area in state government – including a reduction in funding for the University of California, the California State University and the California Community College systems,” said Assemblyman Marty Block (D-78th).
Block added, “It is very difficult to hear that a billion dollars will be cut from higher education programs at a time when our state needs more college graduates to boost our economy. Reduced funding means reduced access and that will impair our ability to grow California’s workforce over the long-term. It also increases the likelihood that students will continue to face ongoing fee increases that are pricing students out of an affordable college degree.”
The Governor has also make cuts to state workers’ salaries, cut the number of state lobbyists in Washington D.C., and slashed the size of his own Governor’s staff. Governor Brown has announced his intent to put a measure on the ballot to ask taxpayers to extend certain tax increases that are otherwise set to expire. If that measure fails, even deeper cuts can be expected, since during the prior Governor’s term, while many cuts were made, the revenue side of the budget shrunk during the economic downtown due to less state income tax and sales tax coming into the state’s coffers, as well as through various tax cuts.
It is unclear exactly what the final budget will look like, which must be approved by both houses of the Legislature. However, it is becoming increasingly evident that it will contain more cuts than increases in spending in an era dominated by voters who have demanded no new taxes and cuts in public spending--without addressing how such costly services as fighting wildfires should be funded.
One thing all sides agree on is that any new budget cuts will be painful. But while many Californians are feeling the strain of budget cuts, the implications are potentially the most dire here, where residents of San Diego's fire-prone East County fear that cuts in spending on state firefighting services will put their homes, their communities, and their very lives at risk.
If you wish to contact Governor Brown's office to voice your opinion about this important issue, you can find his phone, address, and e-mail contact information here: http://gov.ca.gov/m_contact.php.
Also, please take our poll on the Governor's proposed cuts in firefighting, so we can show how our readers feel about this burning issue.
More local wildfire images: Long-time local fire observors ask how small rural firefighting departments could possibly be expected to block such monster fires, standing as the first-line of defense to prevent the blaze from spreading into San Diego's urban areas.