Just north of Highway 180 in Fresno County, a wildfire in mid-June ate through thick grass, burning into oak woodlands and roaring up steep hills.
For firefighters, it appeared to be a routine event. Six engine teams, including five from Cal Fire and one from Fresno County, attacked from two sides. Firefighters carrying heavy, 300-foot hose extensions ascended the rocky terrain. They doubled back for additional hose, stretching their water lines and attempted to circle the fire before it leaped a ridge.
But, under state budget cuts, Cal Fire was battling the blaze with three firefighters per engine instead of the normal four-man crews used in the wildfire season. They couldn't get water around the fire in time. It jumped the ridge and devoured the next canyon.
The incident on what one fire captain called "a standard wildfire" stoked fear over whether staffing cuts are affecting first-strike capabilities of firefighters to stave off severe wildland events.
"I really thought we could catch it," Cal Fire Capt. Doug Freeman said. "Basically, with the fatigue factor (of using a three-man crew), we just couldn't."
Freeman summoned reinforcements as the blaze that he thought could have been kept to less than 10 acres spread to 133 acres and cost $300,000 to put out.
As California closed a gaping budget deficit this year with sweeping cuts to numerous agencies, it saved $34 million by cutting 750 seasonal Cal Fire firefighters. That means one less person per engine unit to haul thousands of feet of hose lines and share the exhausting physical rigors of battling wildfires.
In the Sacramento region, the cuts mean a total of 29 fewer Cal Fire firefighters in El Dorado and Amador counties and 44 fewer firefighters assigned to the Nevada, Yuba and Placer County region.
Cal Fire's Madera, Mariposa and Merced county region lost 37 seasonal firefighters, and Fresno, Kings and Tulare counties are operating with 50 fewer firefighters in the peak fire season.
State lawmakers also shifted $50 million away from the Cal Fire budget for protecting 31 million wildland acres. Gov. Jerry Brown signed legislation, Assembly Bill 29, in a bid to recoup that money and help Cal Fire's budget by billing rural property owners $150 each for fire suppression.
In a July 7 letter to the state Assembly, Brown said "there has been a significant increase in state costs associated with fire protection" due to increased population and building in fire-danger areas. He said "a portion of the costs" should be funded by landowners in these areas."
Yet there is no mechanism in place to collect money from property owners for state firefighting and Brown warned the revenue he seeks "may not materialize" without additional legislation.
Budget cuts also did away with the permanent availability of a stand-by air tanker plane meaning Cal Fire may have to scramble to summon aircraft from other agencies or states in major fires.
"Certainly tough budget times call for difficult decisions and fiscal measures," said Ken Pimlott, director of the agency long known as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. "The men and women of Cal Fire will rise to the challenge."
Pimlott said the public will be protected from fire danger as Cal Fire exercises mutual aid agreements to bring in equipment and manpower as fire and weather conditions require. He said the agency will maintain its tactical philosophy of aggressive initial attacks on fires.
A San Diego State University professor who has studied physical stress on firefighters and the performance of smaller engine crews said there is cause for concern, nevertheless.
In simulated exercises, firefighters unraveling and coupling up to 2,000 feet of hose, common in a wildfire, were more than one-third faster operating in four-man teams than three-man crews.
Moreover, the heart rates of firefighters accelerated to markedly higher levels among three-man crews. "The results unequivocally show that lower levels of staffing result in higher physical stress and significantly lower efficiencies for initial (fire) attack effectiveness," wrote Matt Rahn, who directed the study, partly funded by Cal Fire and its firefighters union.
In an interview, Rahn said California is gambling that it won't be burned by bigger fires and higher costs in the end. In particular, he said, cutting Cal Fire engine crews from four firefighters to three could undercut the agency's standard of trying to keep about 95 percent of wildfires to 10 acres or less.
"Anytime you reduce crew size you're rolling the dice on whether you're going to see an unexpected (major) fire event and whether you're going to be understaffed," Rahn said.
California's firefighting budget traditionally was protected in the Legislature. Cal Fire's base budget actually grew from $326.6 million in the 2002-2003 fiscal year to $629.5 million in 2010-11.
But additional emergency costs for firefighting vary wildly. In 2005-2006, for example, the state spent an extra $104 million in emergency contracts for firefighting resources, equipment and manpower.
Three years later, when lightning strikes lit fires across Northern California, the state's added emergency firefighting tab was $446.8 million.
Cal Fire also relies extensively on mutual aid agreements with hundreds of local fire districts and municipalities that call upon engine teams, firefighters and equipment in major emergencies.
But the local agencies have faced their own budget cuts. An informal survey by the California Fire Chiefs Association concluded that local districts averaged a 20 percent reduction in firefighting resources.
"With Cal Fire (also) dropping their staffing, that theoretically means they'll rely more on local resources coming in on fires," said Demetrious Shaffer, a deputy fire chief in Alameda County who is president elect of the California Fire Chiefs Association. "And there are a lot less resources that are probably going to go out more often."
Cal Fire battalion chief Cameron Todd, part of a Tuolumne-Calaveras unit, said he already sees the effects of shrinking a firefighting force from 170 to 127.
"The endurance level of the people out there is critical," Todd said. "You basically lost a quarter of your workforce."