Budget Cuts Hampering Fire Crews, Experts Say

Times Staff Writer

In what already looks like one of the worst wildfire seasons ever, firefighters are complaining that Reagan Administration efforts to cut federal spending are seriously hampering their efforts to control dozens of major fires.

“We are down 30% in all aspects of our fire-fighting capacity,” said Jack Wilson, director of the Boise, Ida., Inter Agency Fire Center, whose staff is currently juggling resources, trying to help six federal and state agencies contain fires raging over 300,000 acres.

On the California coast from Ojai to Big Sur, where fires are burning more than 100,000 acres of the Los Padres National Forest, officials report that budget constraints are causing “scary situations” for firefighters trying to contain three so-called “project fires.”


‘Initial Attack Slower’

With manpower in the Los Padres forest cut nearly in half and the number of fire engines reduced substantially, Fire Control Officer Tom Myall said that his crews’ ability to respond quickly to a blaze has been seriously diminished. “Now fires have a much better chance of getting away from us,” he said, “because our initial attack is slower.”

The Rat Creek and Gorda fires near Big Sur are a case in point, he said. Initially, the fire commander did not have enough crews to man some sections of the fire and had to let the flames run up the top of the watershed while he put what people he had down lower to protect structures, Myall said.

Drawing heavily on the resources of other federal, state and local agencies, weary Los Padres firefighters now report that they have the 116,000-acre Wheeler Fire near Ojai nearly contained. But spokesman Sam Alfano added: “We’re stretched too thin. Our people are tired, and if this continues we’ve got serious problems.”

No one is saying that funding problems alone are the cause of the rash of big fires. They point out that after four relatively mild fire years, the early hot weather this summer has dried out forests and brushlands, making ideal burning conditions.

Fire response systems suddenly were put to the test. After three years during which the cost of battling fires climbed, the federal budget for fire-fighting has remained essentially constant.

In Washington and Sacramento, top federal and state officials point out that firefighting budgets have not been cut in recent years. However, they do agree that rising costs have meant they have had to spend more for less capability.

For example, federal forest fire controllers this year asked the Administration for $194.3 million for fire suppression and prevention. The Administration cut $40 million from that request in its 1986 budget, giving the U.S. Forest Service about what it has been getting since 1981 to protect its 190 million acres.

Fewer Men Available

“Our fire budgets have remained pretty constant,” Associate Deputy Chief Forester Allan West said in a telephone interview from Washington. West said that as a result of significant increases in the cost of equipment, “there has been a reduction in the number of men available.”

“Our initial response is suffering . . . and we’ve had to curtail funding fire prevention efforts like prescribed burning,” he said.

Firefighters are particularly concerned about their readiness to respond initially to fires with skilled crews. Because of budgetary constraints, California’s federal forests have had to give up four of their 20 “hot-shot” crews used to combat fires right after they break out. In addition, there are four fewer helicopters, and many fire engines are no longer manned seven days a week, regional foresters report. Officials last year could call out 242 engines, but that has dropped to 190 this year.

Once a major fire has started, firefighters have almost unlimited resources and can summon men and materials through the Interagency Fire Center. Congress has authorized this through contingency funding. The federal Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service are allowed to exceed budgeted firefighting costs and then collect the money from supplemental appropriations.

$11 Million a Day Spent

“It’s one of those things--an emergency situation,” Bureau of Land Management Director Robert Buford said during a visit to the fire center in Boise Saturday. “While you’re fighting fires, you can’t stop to consider the financial impact.”

With 2 million acres already burned, firefighters and research experts in Boise estimate that all federal, state and local agencies are spending $11 million a day combating the blazes.

In California alone, 30 major fires have burned more than 300,000 acres since June 27, destroying more than 170 homes. Damage is estimated as high as $50 million, and nearly $20 million more has been spent fighting these wildfires, the California Department of Forestry reports.

“We’ve already had a big, bad fire season,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief John Englund said. “I don’t ever recall so many fires so early in the season. And if it increases in magnitude, it will be one of the worst, if not the worst season ever.”

Impact Felt Locally

While the chief said that the county’s fire budget has not been cut, local fire officials contend that the impact of federal budget trimming is being felt locally. They point out that fires raging through the heavy brush fields of Southern California leap easily across county, state and federal boundaries.

“The (funding) cutbacks have impacted both the U.S. Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry, and that has impacted us,” Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Scott Franklin said, explaining that county crews are required by a cooperative agreement to back up state and federal firefighters when they need help.

In addition to problems responding to fire calls, firefighters are also having to curtail prescribed burning programs used to reduce the amount of fuel on a mountain or in a watershed area, according to Forest Service Regional Forester Zane Smith. “Fire prevention and fuel management has become a low priority because we just don’t have the funding for it,” Smith explained.

The problem is particularly difficult in the brushy, dry Southern California mountains adjacent to urban areas.