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State budget crisis puts the squeeze on firefighting

With the 2009 California firefighting season already underway, the state this week finally whittled down its debt to Sonoma County firefighters for their help on last year?s major wildfires.

But the failure of this week?s state propositions will likely bring budget cuts that could leave fire chiefs having to make a tough decision: Can we afford to send out firefighters to help battle a blaze?

The Windsor Fire District on Monday got paid $120,000, apparently the last large amount owed in the county from a countywide bill of more than $1 million owed by the state since February.

The payments were for help local districts gave to battle fires far from home; this year crews have already assisted in Santa Barbara to help fight the Jesusita fire. But <WC1>Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger <WC>has announced plans to borrow as much as 8 percent in property tax money from local governments and special districts - such as fire districts - and that will have an impact.

Rancho Adobe Fire Chief Frank Treanor said an 8 percent cut would be about $219,000 to his budget. Coupled with lower tax assessments, that could necessitate the closure of a fire house.

?How can I justify having to close a firehouse a couple times a week, or all the time, to citizen?s here and be able to send an engine company down to god knows where?? Treanor asked.

?We may not be able to play in the mutual aid arena next year,? Treanor said.

Cal Fire relies on help from local agencies to battle wildland blazes. A spokesman for that agency said the governor remains committed to funding emergency services, but that it?s too early to say what affect Tuesday?s vote will have on reimbursement rates or on levels of service.

?We don?t have any idea what that?s going to look like. It?s an unknown at this time,? said Daniel Berlant with Cal Fire.

Santa Rosa Fire Chief Bruce Varner said with the elections? failure, ?we are all going to suffer.?

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