Sunday, August 23, 2009




All through this summer’s budget crisis, while Republican and Democratic legislators haggled with each other and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, all sides promised one thing: There would be no reductions in the quality or availability of fire and police protection anywhere in California.

But now, with California heading into the most destructive part of its fire season, a time when winds can whip flames into 90 mile per hour maelstroms, it’s clear that promise was not kept.

Anyone who suggests fire protection can be as good this fall as in recent years most likely will turn out to be living a fantasy. That, of course, would include Schwarzenegger, for whom everything almost always is “fantastic” in more ways than one.

For one thing, the new state budget cuts $27 million from Cal Fire, the state agency that sends people and equipment wherever they’re needed most. The reduction includes more than $10 million earmarked for new fire engines, hoses, pumps and other equipment. So firefighters will be working with old equipment. If there are significant failures of things like pumps and hoses, it’s an open question whether owners of property charred as a consequence could sue the state for damages. Even if courts rule they can’t sue, this still may turn out as another in a series of penny wise, pound foolish spending cuts that will end up costing taxpayers far more than they are saving by not paying more new taxes.

Maybe that’s why Schwarzenegger sounded a bit defensive when he visited the command post for the year’s first significant inferno, the Lockheed fire in Santa Cruz County. “California has the best and bravest firefighters…and I am confident that they will beat back these fires like they have in years past,” he said.

There's also the matter of the DC-10 airborne tanker, another so-called budget cut likely to cost more than it saves.

For years, California has contracted for a standby DC-10 that can dump up to 12,000 gallons of water or fire retardant each time valves open beneath its huge tank. Photos of the plane dumping orange fluid on raging flames in Santa Barbara last May became iconic emblems of the state’s firefighting efforts.

But a stroke of Schwarzenegger’s pen cancelled the $7 million contract that kept that jumbo jet plane on standby for California. Now, the state will pay more than $66,000 every day it uses the plane, with a five-day minimum. Anything beyond 21 deployments would end up costing more than the budget cut – and if this year turns out like the last few, that’s how it will be.

This assumes the DC-10 is available when needed. The old contract demanded the plane take off within 30 minutes of any call; the new arrangement allows up to 24 hours for responses.

But these reductions in state firefighting ability may pale beside what local fire departments will suffer because of the new budget’s raids on local funds.

In Los Angeles, for one, firefighting officials must cover a $39 million shortfall caused in large part by the state raid. So there will be “brownouts” at many city fire stations, with a total of 87 fewer firefighters on duty each day, almost one-tenth of the usual work force. One battalion command team, 15 fire companies and nine ambulances will be out of service each day, but no city fire stations will actually close.

In other areas, including parts of San Diego County ravaged by several large fires over the last five years, fire prevention efforts are being cut. High-risk Fallbrook is one such place, while several other local districts are ironically casting about for money to pay their contracts for standby assistance from Cal Fire. If they can’t pay, the state agency will either have to let the locals handle all problems or go to work without the payment it usually gets. Since Cal Fire insists nothing will diminish its performance, the agency will probably work some fires without reimbursement. Some budget solution.

The most significant thing here is that while officials say they will still “attack and respond,” they may not be able to be as effective as usual.

This year's budget was atleast partly based on a hope that the upcoming fire season will be less severe than the last few.

That’s held up so far, as there were no significant blazes anywhere in California until mid-August. But the driest part of the year is still ahead, the season when past wildfires have ravaged Malibu, Berkeley, Bel Air, Rancho Santa Fe, Laguna Beach, the Oakland hills and many other California areas built in places where Native Americans conducted planned annual burnoffs for centuries.

All of which means Californians may soon find out the consequences of at least one political falsehood: the oft-repeated claim that big budget cuts won’t mean less protection for the people whose safety is the first responsibility of every government.

Email Thomas Elias at For more Elias columns,

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