Soapbox

California fire agencies know how to respond to disaster, but need more state money

A motorist watches flames from the Thomas fire leap above Highway 101 north of Ventura on Dec. 6, 2017.
A motorist watches flames from the Thomas fire leap above Highway 101 north of Ventura on Dec. 6, 2017. AP

The many tragedies during the terrible wildfires and mudslides California experienced recently have taught us many lessons we cannot ignore or neglect.

First, our weather patterns are changing and natural disasters are getting worse, due in large part to climate change. California suffered its deadliest and largest wildfires ever in just three months last year. Second, the growing frequency and ferocity of these events creates more strain on our disaster preparedness and response systems.

 
Opinion

Third, there are strategies and technologies our first responders can employ to better predict weather-related disasters and respond to them quicker to save more lives and property. This last lesson is one California fire chiefs, firefighters and our state leaders in Sacramento have the power to address.

Our improved ability to monitor weather, soil and vegetation conditions allows us to deploy first responders to at-risk areas before disaster strikes. All that is needed is more funding from state government.

Pre-positioning allows us to attack wind-driven wildfires in the first minutes or hours after they ignite, preventing them from becoming mega fires like those in the wine country last year. It allows us to warn residents sooner and to rescue them earlier.

We know pre-positioning works. In fact, our agencies used the strategy on a limited basis last year by using a mix of local and state money. When forecasted winds and high temperatures posed a severe fire threat in Ventura County, a significant number of additional fire engines were put in the most vulnerable areas. They prevented the wind-driven fires from spreading into residential areas.

When heavy rains later threatened the charred hillsides of Montecito, the state Office of Emergency Services summoned rescue teams from throughout Southern California, allowing them to respond immediately and save the lives of several residents when the mudslides began.

Unfortunately, our statewide disaster response system makes it difficult for local fire agencies to take full advantage of pre-positioning in the large-scale disasters that are becoming all too common in California.

California’s Mutual Aid System, created almost 70 years ago, is recognized as world-class but it is a “reactive” approach, deploying people and equipment as disasters grow beyond the capability of what’s on scene. The system also relies on reimbursements when local agencies volunteer their personnel and equipment to help another community respond.

But there is simply not enough state funding to reimburse local agencies for pre-positioning. More financial support from the state would convert our Mutual Aid System into a “proactive” system. We’ve formed a coalition of fire chiefs, local governments and firefighters to ask the governor and Legislature to allocate $100 million in next year’s budget.

Our proposal would give $87 million to the Office of Emergency Services, which manages the Mutual Aid System, to reimburse local firefighters when they are called upon to pre-position personnel and equipment. The other $13 million would upgrade the technology to dispatch strike teams and to warn residents.

While this may seem like a large investment, it is minimal compared to the billions California is spending to respond to and recover from these disasters. It’s time we learn from them and give first responders the tools they need.

Daryl Osby is chief of the Los Angeles County Fire Department and can be contacted at Daryl.osby@fire.lacounty.org. Mark Lorenzen is chief of the Ventura County Fire Department and can be contacted at Mark.lorenzen@ventura.org.

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