Anyone who questions the consequences of budget and staffing cuts to the Contra Costa Fire District needs to hear what happened July 1. Chief Daryl Louder laid out the scene for county supervisors last week.

"We had a 500-acre fire on Kirker Pass, with structures threatened," he said. "It was the equivalent of three alarms, with 50 percent of our resources committed to that incident. Concurrent with that, East County had a significant wildland fire and utilized a number of our resources as part of our mutual aid process. Also concurrently, we had what started as a vegetation fire and became a structure fire that threatened other structures in downtown Concord."

Resources were so overtaxed, he said, that neighboring districts had to cover for ConFire stations and response to medical emergencies was cut off for all but serious, life-threatening calls.

In the world of public safety, those are scary consequences.

Ever since a November parcel tax failed and the district began trimming costs -- Pittsburg station No. 87 recently became the fifth to close -- the search for operational solutions has meant long meetings for supervisors, who double as district board members.

Last week's agenda items included the district's three-year budget picture (not good, even with rising property taxes), a proposed partnership with the Moraga-Orinda district (if operating expenses can be delayed) and an emergency-response program utilizing two-person teams (panned by two firefighters in attendance).

The general mood might be categorized as grasping at straws. When expenditures outpace revenues, that's inevitable. So are questions about priorities.

Take the shared firehouse with MOFD, a move that would replace shuttered Station 16, the northernmost of three Lafayette stations. The idea is sound, but should it come ahead of restoring full service to Clayton's only station?

"If we had enough money to open Clayton or Lafayette, which one would you open?" Supervisor John Gioia asked.

"From a public safety standpoint, I would open Clayton first," Louder said. "But actually, I would first reopen Station 87 in Pittsburg, which we just closed. But I also can tell you that greatest (station closure) impact to date has been in Walnut Creek."

So, Chief, which of your children do you want to keep, because you can't afford to feed them all ...

For now, the district can't afford any new operational expenses. (The MOFD deal is possible only because it would be funded from capital expenditure reserves.) But even if money fell from the sky, there would be hard questions about how to deploy it. We haven't even mentioned the closed station in Martinez.

Louder endorses the MOFD partnership because of its long-term benefit and because it solves at least one of his problems. Reopening one of five stations is better than reopening none.

In furthering his case, he told supervisors, "West Lafayette is not protected now."

To which Supervisor Karen Mitchoff responded: "Neither is Clayton."

The district is doing more than wringing it hands. It has hired a consultant to study its operation and propose a new model that streamlines expenses, but answers are needed soon. Otherwise another station will be selected for closure in January.

And questions about priorities will resume.

Contact Tom Barnidge at tbarnidge@bayareanewsgroup.com.