Cambria Fire Department bolstering staffing

ktanner@thetribunenews.comMay 9, 2013 

As wildfires raced through several parched parts of California in the first, hot week of May, various fire departments statewide sent teams of firefighters to help.

Cambria Fire Department wasn’t one of them, because the small department is short of personnel to cover its own territory.

Cambria Fire and its overseers at the Cambria Community Services District are preparing for a worrisome fire season, with high weeds and after low rainfall. The department also is gearing up to administer requirements for property owners to abate weeds on vacant lands in town.

Fire Chief Mark Miller told district directors April 25 that he’d been hoping to participate in mutual aid “with Cayucos and Templeton for a shared crew to send out” to other areas, as needed. “But our staffing levels won’t allow us to do that now.”

The department is testing candidates now to add to its roster of seven permanent, fulltime staff members (including Miller) and 10 “volunteer” or reserve firefighters. Physical agility testing and oral interviews for the candidates are to happen May 22.

One of Cambria’s three fire engineers is out on a four-month medical leave because of an injury.

In the past year or so, Cambria Fire has lost to other departments seven reservists, who work regular and fill-in shifts, but are paid by the hour.

The small department is a prime training ground for entry-level firefighters, because each covers a lot of different bases. However, that also makes many of the trained volunteers top candidates to be drafted by other departments, Miller said. “We’re recruiting good people, and they are doing well enough to … be of interest to other departments.”

Having an adequately staffed department is important for the hilly, forested community on the coast, Miller and others have said in the past.

In an emergency, especially one that involves the entire county, “ours is a small, isolated community,” he told the board members. “If something happens, we’ll be on our own for a while.”

Fire season

The town, county and state are facing an early and potentially daunting fire season because of low rainfall levels.

Through April 29, the town had 10.42 inches of rain, about half the usual amount for a season (20.80 inches). It’s the second rain-short year in a row, with 14.41 inches in 2011-2012. By comparison, the 2010-2011 year accumulated 33.69 inches.

Nobody’s saying “drought” out loud yet, but district officials are keeping wary watch on well levels, and expect to soon run a computer model designed to estimate if CCSD should consider adding surcharges to water bills of those who use more than average amounts in each billing period.

Director Amanda Rice said April 25 that Santa Cruz already is imposing restrictions on water use, and that April and May were supposedly the months for CCSD to run the water-supply estimating models.

Figures from those models help the district prepare early enough to impose restrictions if they’re needed.

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