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Brown calls for cutbacks in firefighter crews

January 17, 2011 12:00:00 AM PST
Governor Jerry Brown is calling for cutbacks in state firefighting crews to save money. But will that put more homes in danger when wildfires break out?The Brown administration looked at the 7-year-old policy of assigning four state firefighters to every engine, versus having only three people.

They found a similar success rate in corralling a fire before it burned more than 10 acres.

"There was virtually no difference in terms of response times," said H.D. Palmer, California Department of Finance. "About 90 percent effectiveness in controlling those fires fairly swiftly."

So in a move to whittle down the deficit, Brown proposes to go back to the three-person crew.

That would save the state $34 million and eliminate 800 seasonal firefighting positions, a move lauded in the Legislative Analyst report.

"These are tough fiscal times, and when we have budget crises like the one we're in, we have to do our part to make reductions," said Daniel Berlant, CalFire spokesman.

But one firefighters union says that extra person does make a difference. Attacking a fire faster minimizes losses and saves lives.

"They can get the hose out there a whole lot more quickly," said Carroll Wills, communications director, California Professional Firefighters. "One study had it up 41 percent faster with four people versus three people."

CalFire's original role was to protect forests, but has had to increasingly add property protection to their responsibilities as county after county in California approves housing permits in the backcountry without regard to whether the agency can handle the added duties.

For years, state lawmakers and local leaders have been trying to figure how to pay for firefighting. Efforts to add a surcharge to property insurance policies have failed and Brown doesn't want to go there.

"When you make those cuts, you are basically, in some ways, taking a risk, either A, the agency next door will come and help you; or B, that you won't have a lot of fires," said Wills.

But cities and counties have had their own budget problems, laying off firefighters and even shutting down some stations.