By Dylan Darling
The Record Searchlight
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Cuts in Sacramento have changed how the state's fire department battles blazes.
But shrinking engine crews from four to three firefighters and the virtual grounding of the DC-10 supertanker shouldn't change the effectiveness of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, agency officials said.
"It was imperative to us to keep that aggressive initial attack capabil-ity, and we have," said Janet Upton, Cal Fire spokeswoman in Sacramento.
Neither of the cuts stops an incident commander, or Cal Fire official, from managing how a fire is fought or ordering enough firefighters, engines and air support to snuff a wildfire, Upton said.
Reducing the number of firefighters on each engine last January trimmed $34 million from Cal Fire's budget, she said. Changing the contract for the DC-10, which used to be paid by the state to be ready to fly in 30 minutes, cleared another $5 million from Cal Fire's budget this year. While the number of firefighters per engine dropped, there haven't been any cuts to the total number of engines - 19 - in Shasta and Trinity counties, said Linda Galvan, Cal Fire spokeswoman in Redding.
"It hasn't changed our response at all," Galvan said.
But the cut does mean Cal Fire has fewer seasonal firefighters this year, she said. Last year Cal Fire had 134 seasonal firefighters in Shasta and Trinity counties.
This year there are 118. Cal Fire also has 100 permanent firefighters in Shasta and Trinity counties.
The reduction in the number of firefighters causes concern about a ripple effect to other firefighting agencies, said Carroll Wills, spokesman for California Professional Firefi ghters.
The statewide organization represents career firefighters.
"Whenever reductions happen in the fire service, at the state or local level, it reverberates through the entire firefighting system," Wills said. Often a critic of firefighting agencies, Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology in Eugene, Ore., found both of Cal Fire's moves reasonable.
Ingalsbee, who worked as a firefighter with the U.S. Forest Service and the National Park Service, said that the Forest Service regularly uses three firefighters per engine and that they're able to manage the tasks of driving, pumping water and directing hoses.
He said smaller engine crews make more sense than smaller hand crews, which are comprised of firefighters who dig fire lines.
"If there was a place they had to make cuts, that's a place where they'd make sense," Ingalsbee said.
Although Ingalsbee was still somewhat reluctant to fully support the reduction of firefighters per engine, he was quick to call the DC-10 contract modification a money saver. He said the Victorville-based supertanker, which first flew in 2008, was a "boondoggle."
While the plane carries 10 times the retardant hauled by other tankers in Cal Fire's fleet, he said it lacks the maneuverability to be useful in the north state.
"I think it may have done great work in the flatlands of Texas," Ingalsbee said, "but it had limited use in the mountainous terrain in Northern California."
Cal Fire may still call on the DC-10 this year, Upton said, but the agency's contract will pay for the plane only if it's given a mission. Last year Cal Fire called on the supertanker twice. The DC-10 was part of the north state's fire campaign in 2008, during which hundreds of fires charred more than 800,000 acres north of Sacramento.
The cancellation of a full-time contract has been devastating to 10 Air Tanker Carrier, the company that owns and operates the DC-10, said Rick Hatton, a partner in the company.
"We many not continue to be available," he said.
The company has "callwhen- needed" contacts with the state and the Forest Service, but both pay only when there's a fire. Hatton said those contracts might not bring in enough money to keep the DC-10, and a second supertanker operated by the company, ready to fly. He said he's still hopeful that Gov. Jerry Brown may sign a $5 million contract to make the DC-10 available for 90 days later this year as fire season gets into full swing.
"When you need some retardant on the ground, there is no substitute for it," Hatton said.
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