Wildfires Prompt Renewed Cry for Firefighting Upgrade

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The tremendous number of fires burning in Southern and Northern California have stretched the state's firefighting resources almost as far as they can go. KPCC's Julie Small says that's renewed a cry to upgrade California's firefighting ability.

Julie Small: Since the wave of wildfires erupted a few weeks ago, the federal government and 41 states have sent help west. And for the first time in 26 years, Governor Schwarzenegger authorized frontline firefighter training for National Guard troops. Fire officials across the state have accepted the help with gratitude. But former Corona Fire Chief Mike Warren says California shouldn't be in this position.

Mike Warren: The fires we're seeing, you know, today and the last, you know, couple weeks in Northern California is not unlike what we had, you know, last year in Southern California, and we had it in 2003. And we can go back through time and what we're seeing continually happens every year.

Small: Warren chairs the state's Blue Ribbon Task Force on Fire Prevention. The governor appointed that panel to look into the devastating fires that burned in the fall of 2003, and figure out what California can do to prevent another firestorm.

Of course, another firestorm hit California last fall. Now the new round of northern infernos has prompted the task force to shoot off a warning flare to the state Legislature: it's time to "get real" about California's fire threat.

Warren: We have periods of time during the year when the fire danger is higher than others, but we have a year-round fire problem.

Small: Chief Warren says California ought to have a year-round fire fighting force, too. He's wants hundreds more firefighters, 150 new fire engines, and 11 more fire-fighting helicopters. Cal Fire chief Ruben Grijalva says the current chopper fleet can't fly after dark.

Ruben Grijalva: We will purchase helicopters that have the capability to fly at night, that have two engines, that have night vision and infrared and all the latest technology to allow us to move into that arena.

Small: That should also help Cal Fire address criticism following last October's wildfires. One Orange County state lawmaker claimed Cal Fire hadn't properly planned its aerial attack on the Santiago Fire. But Grijalva says even if the Legislature funds the purchase, it will still take a couple of years to buy the helicopters and train the pilots.

Grijalva: It's different than flying a police aircraft at night where all you're doing is flying from a higher elevation and just observing. When you're fighting fires, you have to get down close. The drops have to be, you know, about 300 feet above the areas of the fire to be effective.

Small: Aaron McLear with the governor's office says Schwarzenegger has proposed more than $100 million in next year's state budget for most of what the fire prevention task force wants.

Aaron McLear: That's why we need to pass this budget as quickly as possible so firefighting gets those resources they've asked for and that they need.

Small: But the Legislature is still struggling with how to meet those needs and plug a $15 billion deficit. Republicans oppose new taxes, but McLear says they should support the governor's proposal to levy a 1% fee on every property owner in the state.

McLear: It's anywhere between a six and a $12 fee per year per household or per business. I think most people will look at that and they say, "You know what? Six bucks, 12 bucks a year to keep these firefighters safe... I'm good with that.

Small: But Fire Prevention Task Force chairman Mike Warren says all the firefighters in the world can't defend indefensible space. He wants lawmakers to urge the state's 58 counties to adopt stricter building codes and development policies in fire-prone areas.

Warren: Until we make a significant change in how we address development in the urban interface through land use planning and development standards, we're going to see the problem repeat itself.

Small: Mike Warren, who's just retired from a long career in firefighting, says he knows it's a tough year to ask the state for more money for any program. But he says whatever California spends on fire prevention now will be a lot less than what it'll lose if it's not ready for the next firestorm.