Agency assists with more than just fires

80 percent of responses are medical, non-fire related, chief says
By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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Cal Fire is an agency of many hats. The state agency, which has a contract with Placer County to provide services throughout the county, not only fights wildfires and responds to state emergencies, but also deals with a number of other issues. Cal Fire has fire service contracts with 140 cities and counties in the state, according to Daniel Berlant, information officer for Cal Fire. “Those cities and counties contract with us for fire protection year round,” Berlant said. “So, essentially we are their fire department. So, being their fire department we respond to every type of emergency, be it wildfire, or a heart attack or a water rescue. Our firefighters train for every type of emergency, every type of incident.” As of Tuesday, the Nevada, Yuba, Placer Cal Fire unit had dispatched 27,667 calls this year, and 21,057 of those calls were medical related, including traffic accident injuries. Of the total calls, 3,267 were fire related. “We actually dispatch for 36 different agencies in the Nevada, Yuba, Placer County areas,” said Chief Brad Harris, unit chief for the three counties and fire warden for Placer County. “Year round we are responding to traffic collisions on I-80, hazardous materials, anything that is associated with firefighter response. Medical aid and non-fire responses are about 80 percent of what we do.” The wet weather currently has Cal Fire occupied with some specific projects, Harris said. “Throughout the state of California we are currently involved with flooding, swift water rescue and diking,” he said. “Some of our other contracts we have, (Cal Fire crews) are (involved in these things) around the clock. The common misperception is that Cal Fire is just a wildland agency, and that is just not true.” According to Berlant the Nevada, Yuba, Placer Cal Fire unit is the second busiest in the state. The unit also acts as the Central Hazardous Material Team for Placer County, Harris said. Placer County Supervisor Jim Holmes said when he was serving on the Placer Consolidated Fire Board there were times before the Cal Fire contract when fire stations in outlying areas had to be shut down at night, because the county just didn’t have the staff or money to keep them open. The Cal Fire contract allows those stations to stay open 24 hours a day, Holmes said. “Generally the county isn’t mandated to provide fire protection, but in certain areas like in Dry Creek, and in North Auburn, Ophir area, we are able to use the resources that are generated from those fire districts ... and supplement the Cal Fire contract,” Holmes said. “We’re able to provide better service with the same amount of dollars.” As a part of the contract, Cal Fire staff mans Placer County fire equipment, and Holmes said maintaining fire resources is made a lot easier by working with Cal Fire. “In regards to purchasing equipment, we are able to go off the Cal Fire contract,” Holmes said. “We are able to save lots of money. When Placer County Fire needs to purchase equipment we can purchase it through the Cal Fire process, and you get a better deal because there is just more volume for Cal Fire.” According to Rui Cunha, program manager for Placer County Office of Emergency Services, who oversees the Cal Fire contract, Placer County signed its first contract with Cal Fire around 1947. That contract was for one firefighter with one engine. Cal Fire provides some of its services through trained inmate crews, Berlant said. “That’s another partnership,” Berlant said. “They are inmates with the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. We then take them and train them in fire fighting and flood operations. Each crew is made up of about 15 or 17 inmates, and these are lower-level inmates.” The inmates work with Cal Fire on community service projects, including some of the recent Project Canyon Safe endeavors in Auburn, Berlant said. During storms inmates will also work to clean up felled trees and set up sandbags where needed. In fire incidents, inmates use hand tools to create containment lines around the blaze. Crews remove any vegetation they can, so fire can’t spread as easily, Berlant said. “That’s a huge benefit to the state and to tax payers because they provide a huge workforce at very minimal cost,” he said. “Any other day these inmates would be sitting behind bars not doing much, and instead we put them to work.” Berlant said the inmate crews help the agency save a lot of money. “It’s easily in the millions of dollars every single year, just because of how cost effective it is to pay them,” he said. “They make about a dollar a day to work for us. When they are on an actual fire they make a dollar an hour. It’s very little, but what we get back is huge.” Reach Bridget Jones at