The California National Guard’s ability to supply planes and helicopters to fight wildfires in a season already above normal may be jeopardized by automatic federal budget cuts, according to the two-star general who commands the force.
The Pentagon has told the largest National Guard force in the U.S. to prepare for a 20 percent furlough of its 2,000 full-time technicians, most of whom work on aircraft, to meet mandatory spending cuts known as sequestration, Major General David Baldwin said in an interview. The guard aircraft supplement the state’s full-time aerial firefighting wing.
“It reduces our availability time by 20 percent, which during the fire season can be decisive,” Baldwin said in an interview. “If those furloughs go through, it will have a direct and immediate impact.”
California’s driest first quarter on record has led to 1,100 wildfires already this year, 500 more than average, according to Cal Fire, as the state Forestry and Fire Protection Department is known. A fast-moving fire in Ventura County last week charred an area the size of San Francisco, forced the evacuation of a college with 4,900 students and threatened 4,000 homes northwest of Los Angeles.
The Pentagon is reviewing plans to put most civilian workers on unpaid leave for one day a week, the equivalent of a 20 percent pay cut. Furloughs will mean fewer hours to maintain 10 Black Hawk helicopters that each carry 660 gallons (2,500 liters) of water, and two C-130 cargo planes equipped to drop 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant in a single pass.
“If an aircraft has a fault or something breaks, it takes longer for fixing it, which means it takes longer to get it ready when the first responders call us,” said Baldwin, who was appointed adjutant general by Governor Jerry Brown in 2011.
The guard is called on when Cal Fire’s own fleet of spotter planes, helicopters and tankers aren’t enough to stop the spread of a blaze, such as the Ventura County fire.
“If we are activating the guard, that means things are hot and heavy,” said Janet Upton, a Cal Fire spokeswoman. “We rely heavily on our partnership with the guard during those times. We would not want to see any impact to their ability to respond.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, in a May 3 letter to U.S. Representative James Lankford, an Oklahoma Republican who serves on the House Budget Committee, said he’s reviewing options that may avert furloughs.
“We are examining every option for responsible cuts in order to minimize or possibly eliminate the necessity of furloughs,” Hagel said in the letter. “However, furloughs may be necessary during sequester to assure that the funding for our warfighters and readiness meet mission requirements.”
In addition to the water-dropping aircraft, the California guard has two UH-72 Lakota observation helicopters used to help map wildfires. Both will be grounded in August because the civilian maintenance contract will be cut under sequestration, Baldwin said.
Wind-swept fires across the state following similarly dry winter months in 2008 burned more than 1.2 million acres and killed 13 firefighters, according to Cal Fire. In 2007, firestorms swept through Southern California, destroying 1,500 homes, displacing almost 1 million residents and killing 17.
The U.S. Forest Service, which also has been told to cut its budget, said it expects this year’s fire season to match or possibly exceed the 9.3 million acres that burned nationwide last year.
The potential cutback in aerial resources is not the only drop in spending on fires. Brown signed a budget in 2011 that reduced the crew assigned to Cal Fire’s engines to three from four to save money and help erase what was then a $10 billion deficit. The crew size had been increased after 14 massive firestorms scorched more than 750,000 acres, destroyed 1,700 homes and killed 24 people in 2003.
“Given the severity, we are going to have a lot more need for fire engines, so we have to deploy as efficiently as possible,” Brown said yesterday when asked if staffing levels might be increased. “We made cuts because we didn’t have the money and I’m not going back to that era of make-believe. I’m going to hold the line.”