Budget Cuts Threaten 18 Fire Stations : Finances: New forecast paints a grimmer picture. County officials say 280 may be laid off over the loss of state funds.


State budget cuts could force closure of up to 18 of Ventura County’s 31 fire stations and layoffs of 280 of its 462 firefighters and civilian workers, according to a new forecast by county fire officials.

If this latest, darkest prediction of the effects of Gov. Pete Wilson’s proposed local funding cuts comes true, “We will not have sufficient firefighting forces to make an attack on a fire,” Chief George Lund said in an interview. “Brush-fire season is going to make or break us.”

Earlier, Lund had predicted that nine to 13 stations could be closed and 200 workers laid off to absorb the loss of $20 million in state funds from the department’s $43-million budget.


But this week, Lund and other fire officials revised their estimates of the cost of workers’ compensation and state-mandated safety programs and concluded that the cuts could force up to 18 stations to close, leaving the department with as little as one-third of its current strength.

“It’s going to change our primary mission of being an offensive, attack-type department, where we aggressively fight fires, to a defensive-type department where all we can do is try to control fires,” Assistant Chief Bob Roper said.

Although county firefighters now answer most calls in about six minutes, Roper said: “With only 13 stations, the response time could go to 10 to 15 minutes.”

A county firefighters union official said Wednesday that if the new cutback forecast proves true, it could decimate the department and cost lives.

“Fires will get bigger, and we’ll take a longer response to help people, so more people and more property will be damaged,” said Carroll Hoiness, vice president of the Ventura County Professional Firefighters Assn.

“There’s no way we can cover the county with 18 fire stations,” Hoiness said. “(Last week), we had two small brush fires at the same time. We put 15 engines on those fires, and if we had only 18 stations left we won’t have anybody to cover the rest of the county except for two or three stations.”


The layoffs--following a last-hired, first-fired policy laid out in the union contract--would leave the laid-off firefighters in economic turmoil and demoralize the remaining ones, Hoiness said.

The layoffs also would erase the department’s recent progress in equal-opportunity hiring--eliminating all women firefighters, 80% of the African-American firefighters and 30% of the Asian firefighters--leaving behind an older organization of nearly all white males, Lund pointed out.

“That’s going to be an absolute shame, because we just started to make inroads in the minority area,” Hoiness responded. “But they have to go on the contract. It would not be fair to alter the contract” to preserve the racial and sexual diversity of the force, he said.

If enacted, the layoffs would come in the form of notices issued June 15 and effective July 3.

As the department prepares to mail letters of intent to lay off the 280 firefighters, management and civilian employees, Lund and others are meeting with county officials to search for solutions.

Lund said he is considering cutting nine upper-management positions worth about $500,000 annually, and has been talking with county officials about getting bailout money from the county’s general fund.


But without aid from the Board of Supervisors or the taxpayers’ approval of a fire assessment tax costing an average $110 per year per household, the department will be stripped down to the bare minimum, Roper said.

Firefighters would be battling to stop a garage fire from consuming an entire neighborhood rather than simply knocking it down quickly enough to save the house, he said.

Supervisor Maria VanderKolk said she plans to meet with Lund, Sheriff Larry Carpenter and Chief Administrative Officer Richard Wittenberg to research ways to consolidate county services that are duplicated in various departments--such as purchasing, warehousing and vehicle repairs.

“We have not as yet discussed giving money from the general fund to the Fire Department; it’s never been done before,” VanderKolk said Wednesday. “But I think all the board realizes that if we don’t get an assessment . . . we’re going to have to do something.”

Meanwhile, fear of the impending layoffs is percolating up to the most veteran ranks of firefighters.

“You’re looking at people who shouldn’t be worried about their jobs, because we’ve worked on this force for nine years,” said Engineer Brian Dilley, who figures he would lose his job if the district cuts 150 positions. “A lot of my friends are out looking for jobs now.”


The cuts “would cripple the fire service,” said Dilley, who works at Station 30 on West Hillcrest Drive in Thousand Oaks.

“The county will be playing a shell game trying to spread us out to make it look like we have more services,” he said. “But people are going to get hurt, and firefighters are going to be told to work harder even though we’re already short-staffed.”

Capt. Larry Brister, a 16-year veteran of the county district, said that if the cuts are implemented, “We would go back at least 25 to 30 years in terms of the level of services we provide.”

Especially hard hit would be fire control in unpopulated areas. “If you only have X amount of resources, which are you going to save first: open space or people?” Brister said. “We’re going to protect life first, then property, and the wildland is going to have to fend for itself.

“It’s a political juggling act and we’re caught in the middle,” Brister said.

Assistant Chief Roper, a 14-year veteran of the county Fire Department, said, “I’m getting a notice myself.”

Times staff writer Stephanie Simon contributed to this story.