If proposed state cuts come to fruition, local fire-fighters may have to defend their communities from wildland fires without the resources needed to do so.
The proposal by Gov. Jerry Brown to cut costs by shifting more responsibility to cities and counties for fighting wildland fires has local officials concerned that they will be left to fill an impossible void.
There are nearly 1.8 million acres in San Luis Obispo County protected by County/Cal Fire. That acreage includes unincorporated communities throughout the county and some cities.
Brown is proposing a $250 million cut to the Cal Fire budget in an effort to reduce the $25.4 billion state budget deficit. He says money will be shifted to local agencies to help them pick up the additional firefighting duties — but it is not yet clear how much money will be doled out to whom.
San Luis Obispo Fire Chief Charlie Hines said that with current resources and staffing, it would be impossible to cover wildland areas outside of city limits.
“To lose those services would be a burden on the city, inefficient and not very cost effective,” said Hines. “We just don’t have enough resources. We staff daily to handle one structure fire and that is it — then we are maxed out and call for mutual aid from neighboring resources.”
Robert Lewin, acting Cal Fire Chief, said an additional $30 million proposed cut would reduce the number of firefighters and wildland engines during fire season to three from four. That would mean a loss of 30 seasonal firefighters in the county.
Hines called Cal Fire’s resources invaluable.
“When winds come up and start a brush fire, it takes hundreds of firefighters,” said Hines. “There is no one agency that can handle that. If Cal Fire leaves, we will be in the hurt box.”
The county pays $17 million annually for Cal Fire’s services.
“We are concerned that it would be an increased cost to the county when they finally figure out how they are going to reallocate the responsibilities,” said Geoff O’Quest, an administrative analyst with the county. “We have no way of knowing at this point, and that makes us uncomfortable.”
Despite the lack of clarity on how these changes will be implemented or funded, Lewin said residents should know that no fire will occur without a response.
“We are still going to respond to every fire, we are just going to do it with fewer firefighters,” said Lewin. “That will likely mean that we will potentially rely on resources coming from further away.”
Lewin said that San Luis Obispo County is known for its mutual response to fires.
“Here, we don’t worry whether it is state, county or city resources when there is a fire,” said Lewin. “We respond and put it out. With this new plan, there will be an impact — we just don’t know what it looks like yet.”
Reach AnnMarie Cornejo at 781-7939. Stay updated by following @a_cornejo on Twitter.