Specialized Calif. wildfire teams hit by budget cuts

By Kimberly Edds
Orange County Register

ORANGE COUNTY, Calif. — The part-time hand crew credited with keeping last year's Freeway Complex fire from racing through Anaheim Hills and Orange Park Acres was disbanded at the end of last year's fire season, and a plan to upgrade it with a round-the-clock crew was shelved because of hard economic times, fire officials said.

Hand crews — highly specialized teams that cut lines around flames to rein in wildfires — are instrumental in controlling the flames, the Orange County Fire Authority firefighters union and management agree.

Despite repeated calls to maintain a critical part of its wildland firefighting force, OCFA soldiers on without a hand crew for the first time in 30 years.

The department is relying on other agencies to lend hands, transforming its own engine companies into hand crews and crossing its fingers that it won't be faced with firestorms like the ones it has been dealt twice in the past 23months.

If another major fire occurs, there is no guarantee outside help will be there. For now, the largest fire department in the county is taking the fire season one day at a time.

It was the 2007 Santiago fire that taught OCFA firefighters a harsh lesson: No one was coming to save them. Tens of thousands of acres were burning around California when the fire erupted. With 21 major fires burning at once, the October 2007 fire siege burned more than 517,000 acres, killed 10 people and destroyed more than 2,200 homes and buildings.

Firefighting resources across the state were stretched. OCFA's hand crew was the only hand crew fighting the Santiago fire for days, trying to corral the monster blaze.

"Hand crews are a scarce resource when the fires get burning. We can never count on anybody else's," said OCFA Battalion Chief Ken Cruz, who oversees hand crew operations. "With your own, it's faster to help control the fire, and you know they're going to be there."

The OCFA pledged to be self-sufficient for at least 72 hours before needing assistance from other agencies. Then the economic bottom fell out. And the idea of having a full-time hand crew was abandoned — at least for now.

Filling their boots
Carrying more than 25pounds of gear and tools, hand crews are a rough-and-tumble group willing to hack, cut and scrape up hillsides covered by dense brush and trees. Clearing a line to bare earth and giving the fires nothing else to burn, their work keeps wildfires in check. For up to nine months a year, they live and breathe fire, then go back to their lives as lifeguards, grocery clerks and students.

The entire part-time hand crew cost OCFA $373,151 last year; it was called out 52 times. The full-time crew was going to cost an estimated $1.7 million, giving the OCFA round-the-clock staffing to protect lives and property.

OCFA spent nearly $35,000 to recruit and test potential full-time hand-crew members this year. Job offers were ready to go out in May when the OCFA decided to freeze the positions — part of a department hiring freeze. Qualified candidates remain on a hiring list.

It was an OCFA hand crew's scraping and cutting away of brush that kept the Freeway Complex fire from racing into Anaheim Hills and Orange Park Acres after it jumped the 91 and ran up the hillsides, said Joe Kerr, president of the Orange County Professional Firefighters.

The fire service world is a world of specific roles. The engineer drives the engine. The paramedic treats patients. The dispatcher answers emergency calls and sends help. The hand crew has its role: cutting fire lines around the fire. It is a complicated unit, dependent on teamwork and experience to be effective. It is a young man's job, made up of hours of hard labor.

To make do, OCFA is taking paramedics and engineers out of their engines, handing them shovels and rakes, and teaching them how to be a hand crew. Instead of treating car accident victims and heart attacks, engine crews are cutting brush and picking up used hoses.

Firefighters can do the job of clearing brush, but they are hardly the experts, union and management officials agree, and in many cases are not qualified to safely handle some of the equipment.

"I just don't think it's the best use of our resources," Cruz said. But management decided not to staff a hand crew, and the agency is trying to make it work.

"It's not a tool we use every day," Kerr said. "Hand crews are specifically dedicated to the mission of brush clearance. And that is just as important as the mission of our firefighters."

Some engines carry chain saws, but many of OCFA's firefighting force are not certified to use them. Just 45 out of roughly 800 OCFA firefighters are qualified to use chain saws to cut down burning trees, with 20 more waiting to be certified.

Additional wildland chain-saw training has been offered to firefighters, but is not required, Battalion Chief Kris Concepcion said.

In July, that fact forced OCFA firefighters to wait for two Los Angeles County hand crews to cut down burning eucalyptus trees in a Lake Forest fire. Plans are in the works next year to train an additional 100 firefighters to cut down trees, Cruz said.

Pulling engines from their stations to transform them into makeshift hand crews sets off a complex chain reaction, forcing other engines to cover larger areas. That means potentially longer response times and longer periods of times engines and trucks are unavailable for the next call.

"We still cover the dirt," Concepcion said.

Harsh Realities
Wildfires are getting bigger, hotter and faster; budgets are getting tighter, forcing agencies to fight for fewer firefighting resources.

More than two years after the Santiago fire blew through Orange County's canyons, tight economic times have forced OCFA to postpone several major recommendations made in the wake of that fire, including the full-time hand crew and adding a fourth firefighter to wildland engines to meet national standards. The recommendations were echoed in the Freeway Complex review.

While several suggestions have been completed or are under way, the ones that cost money, including staffing increases, have been pushed aside. Before retiring, then-Chief Chip Prather begged the OCFA board of directors to fund a full-time hand crew and add a fourth firefighter to wildland crews, staffing increases he said that are crucial to maintaining firefighting safety and effectiveness.

Another Santiago fire recommendation — a pair of $26 million helicopters with night-vision technology — remains grounded at night while labor and management grapple with how to implement a night-vision program.

"It's a necessary item that we'd love to have," Concepcion said of the full-time hand crew. But at an estimated cost of $1.7 million for a full-time crew, the money just isn't there this year, he said. The agency had already sliced $24 million — about 10 percent — from its proposed 2009-10 budget.

The firefighters union and management are working together to find alternative funding sources to pay for the hand crew, such as charging agencies who need brush cleared. The entire county benefits from the OCFA hand crew, but the OCFA foots the bill. Forming a regional hand crew is also a possibility, Kerr said.

Helping out
As one of six entities with Cal Fire contracts, OCFA is responsible for protecting more than 108,000 acres of state land. That contract gives the OCFA $3.97 million a year and pays to staff five fire engines and partially pays for a dispatcher, a bulldozer operator and a fire prevention operator. The contract does not require OCFA to have a hand crew.

If one is needed to fight a fire on state land, Cal Fire sends one of its 196 prison inmate crews. Mutual aid from other agencies, like Los Angeles County and the U.S. Forest Service, kicks in for other fires. But they may be hours or days away if there are major fires burning elsewhere. Sometimes they might not be there at all.

"It's fairly easy for them to request hand crews, engines or aircraft," Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said. But requesting and getting is not always the same thing.

"The problem is with so many fires at one time, it takes a lot of resources," Berlant said. "Especially in the first 24 hours, you always feel like you need more. And you don't know what other agencies are going to be available."

Being neighborly sometimes means pitching in for free. "We've had to ask our neighbors for help while we're in this predicament," Cruz said.

OCFA can get a hand crew from neighboring counties for up to 12 hours without paying a penny, Cruz said. But agencies have a right to protect their people and their property first. They decide what resources are up for grabs. Asking for resources takes time for them to gear up and get to where they need to be — and time gives fire the advantage.

"You don't have to staff a fire department for the day-to-day," Kerr said. "You staff a fire department for a major emergency, 'cause it's coming."

Copyright 2009 Orange County Register

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