Layoffs May Have Hindered California Firefighting Effort

A fire that burned three Richmond homes early Saturday might not have done so much damage if all of the city's fire stations had been operational, a fire spokesman said.

The two-alarm fire began at a three-story house at 435 Golden Gate Ave., at about 2:45 a.m., and soon spread to the outer walls of two neighboring homes.

Fire Capt. Mark Cisneros said the house where the fire started was being remodeled and was unoccupied at the time of the blaze. The neighboring houses, however, were occupied, and those residents were forced to flee the flames as the fire crept toward them.

Everyone got out safely and no injuries were reported in connection with the fire.

When all was said and done, the fire had caused between $700,000 and $1 million in damage, according to Cisneros.

Cisneros said the first firefighters who responded to the blaze did a good job - but the problem was, there were not enough of them.

Rotating station closures caused by recent city budget cuts, along with a dispatching problem, lengthened firefighters' response time and jeopardized the safety of the first crew to arrive at the scene, Cisneros said.

Only one engine rolled onto Golden Gate Avenue after the initial call came in, he said, leaving just three people, "the captain, the driver and a firefighter,'' to battle flames alone for the first eight minutes, he said.

Normally, the second engine would have come from Station 67, Cisneros said. But, since Station 67 was closed under a new rotating closure system, a crew was called out from Station 62.

However, due to a dispatching problem, the Station 62 crew never arrived, forcing the firefighters at the scene to wait for an engine from Station 66, which Cisneros described as being on "the other side of town.''

That engine took 12 minutes to arrive, he said.

Meanwhile, the three lone firefighters who arrived first lucked out, since there was a fire hydrant near the burning home.

"They would have run out (of water) had the hydrant not been right across the street,'' Cisneros said.

The fire was eventually controlled about an hour and a half after the first call came in, he said.

Cisneros said crews would have had an easier time if all stations had been operating at full capacity this morning.

"Before Jan. 1, a house fire like that with companies responding in a normal fashion would have been held to just that one house,'' he said.

The rotating fire station closures coincide with the layoffs of 18 firefighters in an effort by city officials to cut costs for the cash-strapped city.

The firings have been met with numerous protests. Firefighters have argued that the cuts threaten the public's safety by handicapping their ability to respond to emergencies; city officials say times are tough and the cuts were inevitable.

If not for the cuts, Cisneros said, "you would have had two companies on the scene within six minutes'' today.

The cause of the fire was still under investigation, but Cisneros said arson investigators were called to the scene.

"It's the second time in six months this house has burned,'' he said. "By that alone, I'm sure it's considered suspicious.''

Calls to the office of Richmond Mayor Irma Anderson were not immediately returned.