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Wildfire danger up, firefighting funds low, residents warned

May 7, 2012 12:00:00 AM PDT
A warning from state officials: Be prepared for a rough fire season. It's Wildfire Awareness Week in California. Firefighters are warning homeowners that a lack of rainfall and the hot weather ahead make a dangerous combination, and they'd better be ready.

From January to April, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) responded to more than 800 wildfires throughout California. During the same period last year, it was only 300.

The alarming spike combined with the dry winter forced the state to urge Californians to do their part in getting ready for fire season by creating defensible space and having an emergency plan.

"We're prepared, but the individuals around the state need to be prepared," said California Secretary for Natural Resources John Laird.

Homeowner preparation is especially important this year because of budget cuts totaling $80 million.

The state hired 700 fewer seasonal firefighters this year. Five bulldozers that help create fire breaks won't be in use. And one airbase in Fresno was shut down.

Three-man crews will also continue to be assigned to engines, instead of four people.

And for the second year in a row, California couldn't afford to keep a converted DC-10 used for airdrops on an exclusive contract, so states will have to fight over it on an as-needed basis.

"To have it available on-call costs us more per hour," said Bill Payne, Cal Fire senior aviation officer. "Of course the operation has to make its money, pay people and does its maintenance."

All this talk of cutbacks worries people who live right next to areas prone to wildfires, residents like Monica Wilson. They'll be depending on Cal Fire more than ever since vegetation is noticeably dry this year.

"I don't know if response times will be increased, or if they'll have less manpower to create firebreaks," said Wilson. "I think basic fire protection is something our government needs to pay for."

But Cal Fire says residents shouldn't worry because the state has the ability to move resources around and call on other agencies for help.

"We use fire weather and fire behavior specialists to help us anticipate what weather and other conditions are there, and we'll staff up accordingly," said Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott.

The state does have an emergency fund it can dip into in case firefighting costs get out of control. It's also readying to bill rural residents up to $150 per year for fire protection.


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