State legislators told firefighting efforts require costly improvements

State legislators Thursday heard testimony that preparation for California’s new era of catastrophic and deadly wildland fires will require costly changes to land management, building safety and firefighting services, amounting to a wholesale upgrade of the state’s firefighting force.

“We have to increase our pace and scale of everything we’re doing,” Mark Ghilarducci, director of the state Office of Emergency Services, told the Senate Budget and Fiscal Review Committee. “We need to seriously look at the resources and our capacity for what we do today to prepare for the next ?20 years.”

It was the second hearing of the week for a senate committee regarding the 2017 Northern and Southern California fires and mudslides. Tuesday, senators heard nine fire chiefs, including Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner, talk of the terrible challenges of battling the fires. The chiefs also asked for $100 million annually to staff more dispatchers, firefighters and equipment at times of high fire danger.

On Thursday, in front of a mostly new set of senators, Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, warned the state can’t afford not to take action as in 2003 when recommendations from a governor’s blue ribbon commission calling for modernizing the state’s highly touted mutual aid system were ignored.

“It is my belief we are now paying that price” for not taking action back then, McGuire said.

The North Bay senator said the state was “caught flat-footed” in October by the severity and scope of fires that killed 44 people.

“We just don’t have enough resources at the local or state levels to move equipment and combat this new normal and protect California,” he said.

Ghilarducci highlighted staggering details of the overall losses from the fires at both ends of the state, including 11,000 homes and businesses burned.

Debris removal from the North Bay fires is the largest such state effort since the 1906 earthquake, as about 1.6 million tons of debris have been removed in Sonoma, Lake, Napa and Mendocino counties, Ghilarducci said. “That’s almost two Golden Gate bridges of debris we moved out of there.”

Multiple senators expressed concern over the ability of fire victims to rebuild in their communities, hurting not only residents but the local economies and property taxes fueling governments.

“What can we do policy-wise to reduce costs of reconstruction and speed that along?” asked Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento. “We should be looking at different policy actions.”

Sen. Jim Nielsen, R-Tehama, who years ago represented parts of the North Bay for the state Senate, said “Napa and Sonoma, that’s high cost of living. I’m really concerned some of those folks will never be able to build back to the same standard they had before.”

“We’re all concerned about that,” said Santa Rosa Chief Gossner, who spoke at Thursday’s hearing. “There are a lot of for-sale signs cropping up, quite a few lots for sale.”

And, Gossner said, most of the lost homes in the Sonoma County fires were built before current building and fire codes, and residents will have to upgrade, adding to costs.

“You’re seeing prices of $500 per square foot” for homes, he said.

Concerns also were raised about emergency alerts and the lack of uniformity in counties’ abilities to notify their residents about fires or other disasters.

That was a key issue on Oct. 8 and 9 in Sonoma County when thousands of residents weren’t alerted to the approaching fires, stemming from decisions by county emergency officials not to use Amber Alert-type messages to warn people in a natural disaster. Instead, the officials relied on sign-up programs with limited membership.

“We have counties in this state that don’t have the ability to push out emergency alerts,” said McGuire. “What we have found in the North Bay, we had 44 people die.”

McGuire told of a staff member in his office whose mother died in a mobile home because she “never got one damn” alert.

“We are the fifth-largest economy in the world,” he said. “We need to modernize our emergency alert system in all 58 counties.”

Ghilarducci agreed the emergency alert system needed improving, including making sure all counties have the ability to use wireless alert tools.

“Without question there are areas where we continue to need improvement and assets,” he said. “Equipment and resources is one piece of it. Expanding training capabilities across the board at every level of government is important.”

Prevention was a key topic Thursday, as experts and government officials warned senators that decades of lackluster efforts to improve forest health has left the state vulnerable to more mega fires. Senators were told repeatedly of the need to increase intentional burns to clear out hazardous undergrowth and thin forests, helping reduce fuel for possible large-scale blazes.

The state’s current budget has $200 million earmarked for fire prevention and forest health, Ghilarducci said. That will go toward thinning forests, adding fuel breaks, education and vegetation management in urban-rural interface areas.

Also speaking at the hearing was Napa County Sheriff John Robertson, who described how the October 2017 Atlas fire broke out in Napa County.

He said the county now is taking multiple steps to help residents prepare for the next major emergency.

Napa deputies now have a two-tone siren, European style, programmed into their patrol vehicles to act as mobile sirens. Law enforcement are prohibited from using that type of siren for traffic enforcement, so the county will need to educate the public that the distinctive noise means something serious is happening.

Robertson said residents living in fire-prone areas will receive maps with evacuation routes highlighted and be mailed an evacuation tag, to be used to alert first responders that their home has been vacated.

As he told senators at a hearing Tuesday, Gossner recounted Thursday the October fires in Sonoma County and the huge challenges for firefighters facing multiple fires at the same time, plus extreme winds and flames that blew in from Napa County along the Mark West Springs Road corridor and spread in multiple directions.

He emphasized how the fire consumed not only rural hillsides outside the city but jumped six lanes of Highway 101 and wiped out city neighborhoods – 30-year-old Coffey Park and newer homes in Fountaingrove.

“We didn’t get any help for a long time,” Gossner said, reiterating his Tuesday testimony about faults with the state’s outdated mutual aid program that caused delays in aid from neighboring county agencies.

“Prepositioned equipment could have made a huge difference,” Gossner said. “Even if it did not stop it, we would have had more equipment to help people evacuate and defend communities that were just decimated.”

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or On Twitter@rossmannreport.

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