By Brian Rokos
The Press Enterprise
WASHINGTON — State and federal firefighting agencies had fewer resources this year when they entered a wildfire season marked by drier-than-normal brush. But officials said Friday that they are confident they can adequately protect Inland lives and property.
A February report from the U.S. Forest Service, citing a changing climate, said that the fire season in the West is, on average, 78 days longer than it was in the mid-1980s.
After a statewide snowpack of only 50 percent of normal this winter, about 20 percent of the state, including Riverside and San Bernardino counties, is in severe drought, said Tom Rolinksi, a Cal Fire meteorologist.
That increased fire threat has become a reality.
Through April, Cal Fire had responded to 800 wildfires this year, about 500 more than in the same period in 2011. Cal Fire began summer staffing April 23, about a month sooner than usual, spokesman Daniel Berlant said.
That Cal Fire staffing included 730 fewer seasonal firefighters — down to 2,300 — because of a $34 million reduction in the seasonal firefighting budget. Also, a firefighting DC-10 based in Victorville will no longer be immediately available.
"The system is in place like it always is and always has been," Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said Friday at a Wildfire Awareness Week news conference at the Cal Fire base at Hemet-Ryan Airport. "We have the ability to bring local, state and federal engines to a fire. That ability has not been reduced."
Two twin-engine air tankers that can carry 1,200 gallons of retardant or water, a water-dropping helicopter that can transport firefighters and a small airplane for fire managers are based at Hemet-Ryan in southwest Riverside County. A water-dropping helicopter is based in San Bernardino in the Prado Dam area.
With fewer firefighters, Cal Fire will staff engines with three people instead of four, meaning Cal Fire will have to pull in more engines to fight fires.
Previously, the DC-10 air tanker was available exclusively to Cal Fire, which continually staffed the plane. Now, the plane — if another agency is not using it — will be available on an on-call basis and Cal Fire will have to send staff to Victorville to scramble the plane. It can carry 12,000 gallons of retardant.
The DC-10 usually takes 12 to 24 hours to mobilize, whereas the other aircraft are available immediately.
Cal Fire does not expect its statewide complement of 4,300 inmate hand-crew members to be affected this year by the transfer of low-level offenders from the state to counties, known as realignment.
However, Cal Fire is expecting to have 1,500 fewer inmates available to cut fire lines and pull hoses in 2013, Berlant said, and is working on contingency plans.
There are eight inmate camps in Riverside and San Bernardino counties, each with three to five crews composed of about a dozen inmates each.
Jennifer Jones, a public affairs specialist for the Forest Service, said the agency will have about the same number of firefighters nationwide this year, 15,000, as in 2011.
The U.S. Forest Service will have fewer air tankers available than in past years. Because of airworthiness issues, the February report said, the air tanker fleet has been reduced from 43 in 2000 to 11 in 2011. The Forest Service in July 2011 canceled a contract for six exclusive-use air tankers because the vendor, Aero Union, failed to comply with Federal Aviation Administration inspection requirements, a Forest Service news release said.
The report, an analysis of the current large air tanker fleet, says the average age is 50 years. All but one will have to be retired by 2021. The report called for modernizing the fleet with faster, more efficient airplanes that can hold more retardant. The current P2-Vs hold 2,082 gallons, the report says.
Jones said the Forest Service has access to 16 additional air tankers. Eight are military C-130s equipped with airborne firefighting systems. Two of them are based at the National Guard base in Port Hueneme in Ventura County.
Additionally, Jones said, "We have the ability to mobilize hundreds of helicopters and single-engine airplanes. We operate in this system where we have local, state and federal agencies … We all pool our assets to work together to manage fires."
JUST FOR SHOW?
There is some debate about the value of air tankers.
Timothy Ingalsbee, a former Forest Service firefighter and co-founder of Oregon-based Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, said in a phone interview that the large tankers are all too often used as a public relations tool to show politicians that a fire in their area is being taken seriously.
The large tankers typically drop retardant at the head of a fire to slow the spread of flames and allow ground crews to encircle the fire, officials said.
"They call them CNN shots. They make great 'Film at 11,' " said Ingalsbee, a fire science instructor at the University of Oregon. His organization promotes safe, ethical, and ecological wildland fire management, according to its website.
Ingalsbee also said the largest air tankers are sometimes used when ground crews are not in position.
Air tankers can cost $6,600 per flight hour to operate, the Forest Service report said. Ingalsbee said firefighting agencies would be better off using smaller, less-expensive craft that can serve multiple purposes such as transporting firefighters, mapping and monitoring fires and dropping retardant or water.
Pimlott acknowledged receiving calls from elected officials and residents asking Cal Fire to send air tankers to fires. Pimlott said the air tankers are "visual" but added: "We do not utilize the aircraft for show. … We will aggressively use them, we are not afraid to use them, but at the same time we want to be prudent in how we use them."
Tom Harbour, Director of Fire and Aviation Management for the Forest Service, also disagreed with Ingalsbee.
"Dropping fire retardant from large air tankers can be critical to slow the growth of wildfires, especially during the early stages, and enable firefighters on the ground to safely construct firelines to suppress them," Harbour said in an email.
KEEPING IT SAFE
Cal Fire has established a wildfire-preparedness website, readyforwildfire.org, which has tips on safety and evacuation preparations.
There are about 100,000 homes in the 1 million acres that Cal Fire protects in Riverside County. Cal Fire officials Friday urged residents to clear brush from a minimum of 100 feet around their homes and to use fire-resistant building materials.
Officials rolled out apparatus at the news conference, with fire engines, helicopters and airplanes sitting still on the tarmac. Underscoring the fire threat, that quickly changed. Tents and the lectern were hastily pulled aside, and crews jumped on the engines, as the news conference was interrupted when a fire broke out nearby.
Copyright 2012 The Press Enterprise, Inc.
All Rights Reserved