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Calif. Firefighters Rue Budget Cuts as Wildfire Season Heats Up

| May 6, 2013
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A shot of the Springs Fire in Ventura County.

Those folks look like they’re shooting photos/video of the Springs Fire in Ventura County from an uncomfortably close distance. (Credit: Dan Rhodes)

When wildfires blow up, and especially when more than one is raging at the same time, the calls go out to everybody with firefighting resources. It happens every year, more or less often depending on the weather. This year, though, our collective ability to fend off fiery Armageddon is hampered by a hoary beast that roams Excel spreadsheets up and down the state: Budget Cuts.

“A lot of the local agencies across the state have been struggling to just provide the basic level of fire protection for their own communities,” said Alameda County Fire Chief Demetrious Shaffer. He’s also the president of the California Fire Chiefs Association.

Speaking with KQED’s California Report for our Monday morning broadcast, Shaffer explained that many of California’s more than 900 fire departments have cut back in a variety of ways in recent years.

  • attrition through retirement
  • layoffs
  • closing stations
  • brownouts” (i.e., rolling company closures)
  • merging/consolidating/cost sharing
  • shutting down/contracting out

Anybody who’s ever seen a Victorian go up in San Francisco knows even a small residential fire can require more than one crew. So, budget cuts that reduce a department down to the bone reduce its ability to respond to emergency requests from elsewhere in the state.

When a wildfire grows big, and does so quickly, “a lot of resources are needed in a very short period of time,” Shaffer said. “The state’s mutual aid system is fully dependent on local resources.”


View California Fire Map in a larger map

  • Springs Fire in Ventura County: 28,000 acres
  • Summit Fire in Riverside County: 3,166 acres
  • Panther Fire in Tehama County: 6,864 acres

Those are just the big fires I’m pulling from the Current Incidents page on Cal Fire’s website. Although the weather has cooled, and these fires are now fully or mostly contained, it’s fair to say that this year’s California wildfire season has started in earnest.

Shaffer won’t name names in terms of pointing out which local agencies can’t step up to the plate this year. And he said no Californian should assume wildfires are some other region’s problem.

“I don’t know that you can characterize any one area of the state as more at risk than another. We’ve seen some extremely large wildfires in Southern California. We’ve also had them in Northern California. You know, don’t forget the Oakland hills fire of 1991. That wasn’t the first Oakland hills fire, and it probably will not be the last. And there are more areas throughout the state that are urban interface just like that.”

Firefighters overlook the damaged structures after the Oakland Hills fire burned dozens of neighborhoods and thousands of homes. (Credit: CalEMA)

Firefighters review the damage after the Oakland Hills fire of 1991. (Credit: CalEMA)

A lot of Californians live surrounded by heavy brush, nestled below hills or sitting atop ridges. The same factors that provide a pretty view make those homes vulnerable to flames eating up the landscape. Indeed, the more it rains in winter, the more greenery springs up, then dries out when the weather turns hot. Firefighters call that dry stuff “fuel.”

We’ve had a few light fire years recently, but that only worries Shaffer.

“What I’m seeing is a lot of fuel, a lot of fuel growth, in a lot of areas,” he said.

One last note from the head of the California Fire Chiefs Association: Shaffer begs people to heed evacuation orders. Technically, they’re not mandatory in that you could choose not to heed them. But when you do that, you make your personal protection an additional, heavily stressful priority for firefighters while they’re fighting a bigger battle.

If authorities ask you to leave an area, Shaffer said, “We’re doing it for a reason. Allow our folks to do their job the best that they can.”

On the flip side, there are plenty of stories of people who stayed behind and saved their homes with a garden hose after the first embers hit the roof.  Or you might be thinking you’re in a great position to take the YouTube video that will catapult you to fame and fortune. But you could also be failing to gauge the risk you’re taking.

Take, for example, the story of Chuck Henry of KNBC-TV in Los Angeles. His narrow brush with death is now the second paragraph in his Wikipedia entry. He and the cameraman with him were nearly killed during the Old Fire of 2003 in the San Bernardino Mountains. They stayed too long, or maybe it was a sudden change in wind direction, but the fire engines had been ordered to leave the area (hint: always a good sign it’s time to get out). Henry was unsuccessfully trying to start the news van – already on fire – when NPS Strike Team Leader Steven Elenburg from Joshua Tree National Park plucked him from impending doom and drove Henry and the cameramen away from the scene.

Elenburg received a Department of Interior Valor Award for saving the news crew. Henry is now known by the California press corps as That Guy Who Stayed Too Long, Too Close to the Lines and Became the Story.

In defense of Henry, a zoom lens doesn’t deliver the dramatic video of angry flames the public has come to expect from wildfire coverage. Unlike TV reporters, those of us in radio and print can back a respectful distance away from a fire line and still feed our respective news beasts.  I’ve seen a lot of TV people take tremendous risks. Heroism? Idiocy? Both?  Whatever the case, we’re all tuning in or clicking on the play button for the promise of a dramatic inferno.

Listen to the audio report

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About the Author ()

Rachael Myrow hosts the California Report for KQED. Over 17 years in public radio, she's worked for Marketplace and KPCC, filed for NPR and The World, and developed a sizable tea collection that's become the envy of the KQED newsroom. She specializes in politics, economics and history in California - but for emotional balance, she also covers food and its relationship to health and happiness. Reach Rachael Myrow at rmyrow@kqed.org.

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