California had more than 9,100 wildland fires in 2017, according to Cal Fire data, burning across more than 1.2 million acres.
The largest was in Southern California in December, the most destructive was here in Sonoma County two months earlier.
One thing common to many, if not most, California wildfires is a concerted response, a marshaling of equipment and personnel from local, state and federal firefighting agencies.
California’s mutual-aid system, created in 1950, has been described as the gold standard for wildland firefighting. But the resources haven’t kept pace with the growing threat in a state where almost a third of all homes are in areas bordering on forests, grasslands and other natural vegetation — a zone known as the wildland-urban interface.
The fraying was never clearer than in the first hours of the Wine Country fires.
As gale-force winds drove flames across Sonoma and Napa counties on Oct. 8 and Oct. 9, local fire chiefs and incident commanders asked for 305 fire engines from the mutual-aid system managed by the state Office of Emergency Services. Only 130 arrived within the first 12 hours, when most of the 5,800 homes burned in the two counties. Mendocino County firefighters asked for 15 engines, and not one arrived during the first 12 hours of the Redwood Valley fire.
In the aftermath, emergency officials say the mutual-aid system needs to be fortified.
At a state Senate hearing last week in Sacramento, they asked for $100 million to position firefighters in advance when weather conditions raise the risk of devastating wildfires and to upgrade communication equipment to more effectively deploy equipment and crews.
“We need to be more nimble in the first few hours of these incidents,” Santa Rosa fire Chief Tony Gossner told lawmakers. “Pre-positioned engines — that would have helped. It wouldn’t have solved everything, but it would’ve helped.”
In December, 24 engines were pre-positioned in Ventura County, and the fire chiefs credit them with saving hundreds of structures from the Thomas fire.
The state Office of Emergency Service’s inability to fulfill mutual-aid requests has increased dramatically — from 134 in 2012 to 3,029 in 2016 — even as California has experienced longer fire seasons and some of the most ferocious wildfires in state history.
Shortcomings in the system were identified almost 15 years ago by a state commission appointed after a 2003 firestorm in San Diego County burned 750,000 acres, destroyed 3,700 homes and took 24 lives. The panel’s recommendations included state acquisition of 150 additional fire engines to be placed with local agencies and kept on-call for mutual-aid.
Ten years later, only 44 of those engines had been purchased.
With the state’s budget surplus, and experts predicting longer fire seasons, lawmakers should consider adding more of those engines so future mutual-aid calls don’t go unanswered.
Under the mutual aid system, local agencies are reimbursed for sending engines and strike teams to fight wildland fires. But they aren’t reimbursed for sending crews as a precaution when there is an imminent danger. The chiefs want to change that.
The cost isn’t insignificant: about $50,000 a day for a strike team of five engines and 20 firefighters. But, as the success in Ventura County showed, the payoff can be enormous.