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Ceres helps fight Butte Fire
City snags $1.3 million SAFER grant for additional firefighters
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Three firefighters from Ceres are helping to protect structures in Calaveras County as the Butte Fire rages on. As of Monday the mountain wildfire had destroyed 71,663 acres as of Monday. - photo by Courtesy of Don Cool

The Ceres Fire Department has dispatched a three-man strike team to help battle the devastating Butte Fire that has consumed over 71,663 acres in neighboring Calaveras and Amador counties.

The fire broke out Wednesday afternoon, Sept. 9, and has destroyed 135 homes and nearly 80 outbuildings and closed schools in the mountain counties last week. The smoke from the fire also created air quality issues for Stanislaus County over the weekend.

The strike team, consisting of Alex Craig, Bret Presson and Jeff Serpa, went up Friday and are helping to protect structures in Calaveras County. They could be there up to nine days.

Last month city leaders decided against sending strike teams unless a fire struck close to home. The City Council directed a team to help battle wildfires at a time when resources are being challenged in the state.

The decision to send a team was applauded by Leonard Shepherd, a Ceres resident and former CDF fire captain who used to live in Calaveras County.

"We have lots of friends who are up there right now and I have to tell you I am very pleased that (City Manager) Toby (Wells), and the City Council and Mr. Nicholes were able to free three people and a type 3 fire engine," said Shepherd at Monday's City Council meeting. "They're up there now helping. That's important because those people up there are neighbors. Stanislaus County and Calaveras County come together. So the people of Calaveras County are grateful, I know, to have Modesto, Ceres, whoever else from Stanislaus County."

The Butte Fire, whose origin has not been determined, had consumed approximately 71,663 acres and was 30 percent contained as of Monday.

Ceres Fire Chief Bryan Nicholes gave the Ceres City Council an update on the state's largest fires, including the Valley Fire in Lake County which had charred 61,000 acres and was five percent contained as of Monday evening.
Altogether, there were 5,664 personnel on fire lines in the state with 611 engines, 109 fire crews, 28 helicopters, four air tankers, 141 bulldozers and 107 water tenders. State fires had burned 132,000 acres as of 8 a.m. Monday.

"So when they say on the news California is burning, pretty much," Chief Nicholes told the City Council on Monday.

Last month the council was against automatically sending strike teams, saying Ceres is short of fire personnel by four. But good news came on Friday when it was learned that Ceres has been approved to receive a $1.35 million Staffing for Adequate Fire and Emergency Response (SAFER) grant through the Department of Homeland Security. The City Council will be asked to receive the funds on Sept. 28 to begin the process of hiring five new firefighters as well as retaining firefighter Will Dyer who was hired in the first SAFER grant snagged in 2012.

"This will effectively mean we can reopen Station 3," said Chief Nicholes.

Recruiting is planned to start in November with the new firefighters coming aboard in late January, Nicholes estimated.

The city snagged the two-year SAFER grant in 2012 which allowed for the hiring of six firefighters on a temporary basis. When the grant dried up, however, firefighters in September pressured the City Council to find ways to keep the six employed. To make that happen, the council agreed to dip into Measure H tax funds by $100,000 as part of a way to cover the $393,000 expense for the remainder of the year to keep the six. The city also saved in overtime costs by "browning out" Ceres Fire Station #3, since it experiences the least call volume of all four stations.