Golden State turns orange way too early

Record heat, drought, and bark beetles spawn fires, presaging long summer.

The biggest concern over this week's round of fast-moving wildfires is summed up in the comment of one veteran firefighter from the front lines.

"It's only May ... are we really prepared to stay at this level of readiness from now through the fall?" asked 20-year fireman Rick Swan after his first 24-hour stint on the front lines near Temecula.

Record heat, drought, dryness, and devastation by bark beetles and oak diseases have brought fire danger to highly flammable levels not usually seen until September. The brittle combination already had forecasters predicting above-average fire seasons across the western states, including southern California, eastern parts of Washington and Oregon, northern Idaho, and western Montana.

The early start in California has been an unwelcome test of firefighting lessons supposedly learned after the worst fires in state history last fall. This week's fires, drawing hundreds of firefighters from all corners of the state, emphasize the need for funding even as the state debates how to balance a $14 billion deficit.

Some observers say the spate of separate fires - six at once during one high point - is also drawing attention to an insufficient blueprint for fire safety as more people move into rural areas known as "the wildland/urban interface."

"We got a cold slap in the face last fall and a gut-wrenching realization that we have to rethink how we address our continued building out into these areas," says Bob Wolf, president of the California Department of Forestry firefighters' union.

"We need to step up to the plate for the personnel and equipment we need."

For several months, the organization, alongside state, local, and federal officials, has been formally assessing every aspect of strategy, personnel, and equipment necessary to snuff out fires before they can wreak devastation similar to last October, when at least 740,000 acres burned and more than 3,600 homes and 24 lives were lost. Despite an influx of 7 million residents since 1985, funding for firefighters has dropped 8 percent below 1985 levels, and 46 percent of fire engines being used are beyond designated mothball dates.

The current fires - that scorched more than 26,000 acres, and destroyed 41 structures, including 14 homes, by midweek -have pressed equipment and personnel to the limit.

They are also underlining results of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's Blue Ribbon Fire Commission which last month released key findings. Among them, state firefighters are operating a year-round fire system on only eight months of budget allocations; crews at every level are seriously depleted through retirement and other vacancies; planners at all levels of government are still operating with conflicting land- management and environmental laws and regulations.

"We're not really getting enough support out there. It's tough and resources are spread very thin," said Dave Ruiz a 15-year veteran from Moreno Valley, after a day of firefighting near Corona. "It's very hard with only about half the manpower we need on each engine."

Besides dry brush, heat, and wind, one of the reasons so many fires spread quickly was the time it took firefighters to reach the blazes. The delay allowed fires to increase while creating additional stress for firefighters.

Veteran Rick Swan received his call in his San Luis Obispo home last Sunday at 11:30 p.m. By midnight he was at his local firehouse, and by 1:15 was enroute to Temecula, six hours south. With almost no sleep, Mr. Swan began a full day shift of racing 100 ft. high walls of flame, which shot embers ahead of the fire line, igniting other pockets of brush and preventing fighters and equipment from their appointed tasks.

After a short rest, Mr. Swan was back at it for another full-day shift, with no let-up in sight.

Despite limited manpower and frustration over lost acreage and structures, residents are once again lauding firefighters for saving lives and property. The fires are expected to be contained by Monday.

"Our house might be gone if it weren't for a volunteer firefighter," says homeowner Peter Wrangell, who spent two days putting out spot fires using shovels and picks on his 160 acres near Corona. When walls of flames approached his house, volunteer Art Newman began lighting back fires ahead of the approaching flames to consume the brush.

Other officials credit the close observance of fire and vegetation codes by residents in several areas for helping to limit damage to homes. Cooler winds, lower humidity, and some fog late in the week helped suppress damage.

Still, the surprise fires are a reminder of resource needs. The Agriculture Department announced this week it would waive federal requirements for local matching funds and free up federal funds toward removing dead and dying trees.

A bill now before the California legislature requires more staffing for all fire engines year round. But the legislation is running into opposition during the state's current dilemma of finding how to make $14 billion in cuts to state services.

"It's unclear how much appropriation is available," says Matt Robinson, staff analyst for state Sen. Denise Ducheny, author of the bill. "Every part of state government is fighting to keep funding."

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