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Los Angeles-area wildfire fight seems unhampered by budget cuts

But some are warning that a bad fire season could make next year's deficit worse. Also, cuts the state made to local governments' budgets could cause them to pull out of mutual aid firefighting pacts.

August 31, 2009|Evan Halper

SACRAMENTO — The state's budget crunch so far has not appeared to affect firefighters' ability to battle the Southern California blazes.

This year's firefighting efforts, however, could exacerbate the state's lingering financial problems, increasing the size of the deficit that lawmakers will have to close next year.

A $182-million emergency fund the governor created for fighting wildfires was already half-depleted on Aug. 24 -- the last time officials tallied the numbers -- with more than 10 months left in the fiscal year and what is typically the worst of fire season yet to arrive.

Any additional emergency funds would come out of the state's rainy day account, which many analysts say is already too small to keep the state's books balanced through the year.

The $518-million budget for the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection was one of the few departmental budgets not cut deeply in the spending plan the governor signed last month. The reductions amounted to $27 million, which officials achieved by delaying for one year the purchase of some vehicles and other equipment, canceling a DC-10 aircraft contract and reducing the department's resource management program.

Officials with the state and California Professional Firefighters, the largest union representing career firefighters, said the equipment at issue would not have been available to battle the current blazes.

"There is a lot of lead time involved in acquiring these things," said Department of Finance spokesman H.D. Palmer. "We don't think this would have affected the response time at all."

But firefighting groups say that if the fires grow bigger and require significantly more evacuations, large cuts that lawmakers and the governor made in the budgets of local governments could come back to haunt them. They borrowed about $1.9 billion in local government funds and do not intend to repay the money for three years.

City and county officials have warned that the move would cause chaos in their budgets, forcing them to cut services, including funding for firehouses. Local fire chiefs said the cutbacks would leave them short of the resources they need to assist in firefighting efforts outside their districts.

The mutual aid that firefighters provide, under a system called the California Emergency Management Agency Master Mutual Aid Agreement, has accounted for 1,400 of the firefighters and 265 of the fire engines now at work against the Southern California blazes, according to the governor's office. Half the engines at the scene are mutual aid engines.

"The news so far is encouraging, as there does not appear to be a shortage of resources," said Carroll Wills, communications director for the firefighters union. "If we reach a point where massive numbers of people are needed, we are concerned you will see local departments unable to send local resources, or close their eyes and hope nothing bad happens in their own backyard when they do send resources."

Wills also said that although the raid of local funds was approved in Sacramento, cities and counties have not yet accounted for it in their budgets. Once they do, he said, up to half the firehouses in California may decide to stop participating in mutual aid.

Exacerbating the problem for local fire chiefs is the roughly six months the state takes to reimburse them for helping in other parts of California. As firehouse budgets get tighter, Wills says, the lag time makes it tougher for local firefighters to participate in the mutual aid program.

The firefighters union worked with the governor this year on a bid to tax property-insurance premiums to generate funds for mutual aid efforts and other firefighting programs.

The proposal, which called for a 4.8% "emergency response surcharge" on the premiums, was rejected by the Legislature.

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evan.halper@latimes.com

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