By Charles Feldman, KNX 1070 Investigative Reporter
LA CRESCENTA (CBS) — Southern California fire officials have been looking east the past few weeks at raging fires in Colorado and worry that a similar conflagration here might severely test fire fighting agencies that have had to slim down due to budget cuts in the past couple of years.
“Whether it be at the federal, state or the local level, we’ve all had to take come significant budget reductions,” says Julie Hutchinson, a Cal Fire spokesperson.
Because the past two years have been relatively quiet in terms of wildfires in Southern California, Hutchinson says “we haven’t had to test” how budget cuts have impacted the efficacy of the various fire fighting departments.
But drought conditions here, combined with vegetation that has not burned for some two years, say fire officials interviewed by KNX 1070 NEWSRADIO, may be setting Southern California up for a fierce fire season.
Cal Fire alone has suffered some $80 million in cuts in the past two years. Though Hutchinson says the agency has mostly been able to avoid compromising its initial “attack capability,” she says, Cal Fire is now getting to the point where “we are having to give up some equipment and some personnel that could really impact us.”
Three Years After Station Fire, U.S. Forest Service Dragging Its Feet: U.S. Congressman
The historic Station Fire of 2009 burned through more than 250 square miles of land north of Los Angeles, proving to be the biggest and most deadly in a series of wildfires that summer.
Yet, nearly three years later, the U.S. Forest Service tells KNX 1070 that it has still not completed a promised evaluation and report on the possibility of using its own aircraft at night to fight raging fires.
Rep. Adam Schiff , a Democratic congressman from Burbank, said “It’s appalling to me, almost on the 3rd anniversary of the beginning of that fire, and we still not only don’t have an answer from the Forest Service, but assuming the answer is yes, they’ve made no progress in terms of getting that technological capacity; doing the training; and, that’s going to require additional time.”
Currently, the Forest Service contracts out for night flying fire fighting.
Schiff has gone so far as to include language in an appropriations bill that would compel the Forest Service to complete and deliver its report on night flying within 90 days of the bill’s enactment.
In an interview with KNX 1070 NEWSRADIO, Tom Harbour, the director of fire and aviation management for the U.S. Forest Service, says the agency has no planned date to release its promised report and that it is still being worked on – this despite pressure from Schiff and other lawmakers.
Mutual Aid May Be Difficult This Year
Mutual aid pacts among various fire fighting agencies serve as the backbone for a system designed to deal with either one huge out of control blaze, or a series of smaller wildfires breaking out nearly simultaneously.
But budget cuts have introduced a degree of uncertainly into this equation. “What we rely on is the fact that we can call upon them in our time of need, ” says LA City Fire Department Captain Jaime Moore.
But, he says, there’s “no guarantee they are going to be able to send us those resources. “And, that’s the risk we are taking.”
The LA City Fire Department itself has 18 fewer resources (fire engines and trucks) out in the field than it did only two years ago, says Capt. Moore. He says the lost equipment is in “reserve status,” but the department now has 110 fewer fire fighters in the field, Capt. Moore says, than it did in 2010.
LA County Fire Chief Daryl Osby tells KNX1070 that despite $50 million in cuts, he remains confident his department can handle any wildfire outbreak, though he echoes the concerns of Capt. Moore of the LA City Fire Department that mutual aid agreements could be severely tested should this turn out to be a potent fire year for Southern California.
“It’s yet to be seen that when we have a major incident, will they be able to commit fully as they’ve done in the past based on certain budgets,” Chief Osby says.