Preparedness & Recovery

California Fire Officials Request $100 Million to Fix Mutual-Aid System

At a legislative hearing in Sacramento, fire chiefs and emergency officials said wildfires across the state last year exposed shortcomings in the 60-year-old system.

by Melody Gutierrez, San Francisco Chronicle / February 28, 2018

(TNS) - California fire officials asked lawmakers Tuesday for $100 million to improve the state’s strained mutual-aid system, which is designed to quickly rally first responders in an emergency, such as the deadly fires that ravaged the North Bay last year.

At a legislative hearing in Sacramento, fire chiefs and emergency officials said wildfires across the state last year exposed shortcomings in the 60-year-old system.

“The system is a little too slow to react sometimes, and you are really starting to see it in these instances where a fire is moving so fast that you can’t keep up,” said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner, who battled one of the quickest moving and most destructive fires last year, the Tubbs Fire. “The system worked great in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s. In today’s world, the last three or four years have shown it is too slow.”

Tuesday’s hearing before two state Senate committees — the emergency services and governmental organization committees — came after a Chronicle story in November revealed that thousands of mutual-aid requests in fire emergencies went unfilled in the past few years, including 175 requests made during the early hours of the October fires that ravaged parts of the North Bay.

The Chronicle found that commanders in Sonoma and Napa counties requested 305 fire engines from other jurisdictions through the mutual-aid program during the early hours of the devastating Wine Country fires. But, in the first 12 hours, only 130 engines arrived to help with the deadly blazes. In Mendocino County, where nine people were killed in the fires, no engines were sent from the mutual-aid program during the first day, despite a request for 15 engines.

The mutual-aid system is a network managed by the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services to enable cities and counties to voluntarily assist each other during major emergencies in a “neighbor helping neighbor” concept, said Mark Ghilarducci, director of the Office of Emergency Services.

However, local governments can be reluctant to share their firefighting resources if it means leaving their own communities unprotected. And California’s emergency responders are seeing bigger and more destructive fires as well as longer fire seasons.

State officials told lawmakers that California’s mutual-aid system is the gold standard, but increased demand has weakened the system’s ability to respond quickly and adequately in emergencies.

Ghilarducci said upgrades are needed to better utilize the mutual-aid system. For example, the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection is in the process of adding tracking devices to its emergency vehicles over the next three years, which allows the agency to live-map the location of all resources so that it can efficiently dispatch the closest vehicle to a fire.

“We need to be able to have that seamless operating picture across all local governments responding so we can see how we can get the closest resources there,” said Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott.

Most of the $100 million requested for the 2018-19 fiscal year would go toward beefing up staffing in areas where weather conditions suggest a devastating fire could break out. Lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown are in the midst of budget negotiations.

The largest user of the state’s mutual-aid system is Cal Fire.

Pimlott said dry conditions during the state’s most recent drought led to an increase in fires, with Cal Fire turning to the mutual-aid system to handle the outbreaks. In 2012, Cal Fire sent 4,472 mutual-aid requests, with local governments filling 3,101 of those. Three years later, Cal Fire’s use of the mutual-aid system jumped to 11,899 requests in 2015, of which 6,421 were filled by local governments.

“Our system in California is the best in the world, but it was never built to deal with the level of activity and the conditions we are facing,” Pimlott said.

California faced an unprecedented 9,000 wildfires last year, which burned more than 1 million acres, destroyed 11,000 structures and killed 46 people. Among the most devastating fires were those that ripped through Northern California in October. In December, the Thomas Fire in Ventura County became the largest wildfire in recorded history, burning 280,000 acres.

“In the last 36 months, every time we say it’s an unprecedented wildfire it just gets worse,” said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, who said he supports the $100 million budget request from fire officials. “We need to stop saying it’s unprecedented and prepare for what our new reality truly is.”

Melody Gutierrez is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: mgutierrez@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @MelodyGutierrez

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