Friday, June 27, 2008

Overwhelmed firefighters ask governor, lawmakers for help

SACRAMENTO — A firefighters' blue-ribbon task force created by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2004 — and revived last year after devastating blazes — pleaded with the governor and lawmakers Thursday to "get real" about the growing wildfire threat facing California.

The task force, which includes top fire officials in Contra Costa and Alameda counties, issued a statement calling for funds to finance more firefighters, year-round staffing in rural areas, and additional engines and aircraft in future years.

Sheldon Gilbert, Alameda County's fire chief and a commission member, said, "We're saying, 'Hey, we have a problem out there.' This is the third siege in five years. We need to move forward very aggressively."

In recent days, drought, winds and lightning have fostered more than 1,000 fires in Northern California, blackening more than 158,000 acres and destroying at least 40 structures, authorities said. Several evacuations and highway closures remain in effect.

Fires continue to spread as new ones are being discovered, officials said. Firefighters are focusing efforts on those blazes that threaten life and property, while forces prepare for more thunderstorms through the weekend.

Task force member Lou Paulson, a Contra Costa County fire captain and president of California Professional Firefighters, said fires once typical in wildlands are now extending into suburbs and potentially even into city limits.

State Advertisementand local fire agencies are under fiscal pressures, while federal firefighting forces are stretched thinly across the nation. During the current siege, California has been forced to seek help from several neighboring states.

In a statement, the task force of 18 representatives of state and local agencies, said California must "get real about the ongoing fire threat" by securing an ongoing source of money in order to build up firefighting forces.

Under the current system, when wildfires strain state and local agencies' budgets, they tap into whatever the state has been able to put in its annual emergency fund that year.

Schwarzenegger, among other efforts, has proposed a statewide surcharge of $6 to $12 a year on property insurance, hoping to bolster firefighting forces.

In the Legislature, lawmakers have introduced bills such as SB1617 by Sen. Christine Kehoe, D-San Diego, that would charge 900,000 homeowners living in wildland areas a $50 fee annually for fire prevention work.

But the proposals have been caught up in the debate over fixing an overall state budget deficit of at least $15.2 billion. They are opposed by some Republicans and taxpayer groups.

Basic questions center on whether new fees are actually taxes and whether people who choose to live in high-risk, rural areas should pay more.

Lisa Page, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Thursday that during Schwarzenegger's recent appearances at fire base camps he has reiterated commitment to ensuring firefighters "have all the resources they need" and to fighting for his funding proposal.

The commission statement called for:

Expanding CAL-FIRE statewide, with permanent three-person staffing per engine year-round and four-person staffing statewide during periods of highest fire risk.

Buying 150 new engines, which would be deployed with local fire departments throughout the state, boosting local protection and providing rapid response during all disasters, including wildland fires.

Accelerating the upgrade of the state fire department's helicopter fleet.

Broadening "surge" capacity, so more firefighters and equipment are available during peak periods.

The commission also recommended fire-safe construction and creation of a model to guide local government decisions toward development that is less vulnerable to wildfires.

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