PD Editorial: Fund mutual aid to prepare for the next wildfire

Experts long have warned that climate change will exacerbate the conditions that cause wildfires. In California, it is frighteningly easy to see that those predictions are coming true - right here and right now. Last year's catastrophic wildfires in the North Bay were the most destructive in the state, but we were far from the only ones affected by fire. Responding to fire effectively will require that communities work together.

The state Legislature needs to listen to those who warn that last year's fire season almost certainly represents a new normal for the state. Lawmakers must heed recommendations from fire departments and the League of California Cities calling for a more substantial investment in California's mutual aid system.

“As our community continues to rebuild, we know that Santa Rosa and all California communities face more natural disasters,” Santa Rosa Mayor Chris Coursey said at a May 9 rally on the steps of the state Capitol to urge more funding for disaster preparedness. “They will come faster and with more force than in the past. We can learn from the Tubbs fire and make investments now that will give our first responders the tools to allow them to meet the challenges ahead.”

Th mutual aid system, created in 1950, helps communities mount a coordinated response when fires break out. But as development has expanded the number of homes in areas bordering forests, grasslands and other natural vegetation - the wildland-urban interface zone - and the number of deadly wildfires has increased, resources devoted to the system haven't kept up.

Emergency officials therefore asked the Legislature to commit an additional $100 million to allow firefighters to be positioned in advance when weather conditions raise the wildfire risk and to upgrade communication equipment so crews and equipment can be more effectively deployed.

This is a sound investment. Last year's Wine Country fire caused an estimated $9 billion in insurance losses. Beefing up the mutual aid system won't eliminate such costs, but it would certainly reduce them.

“We need to be more nimble in the first few hours of these incidents,” Santa Rosa fire Chief Tony Gossner told lawmakers earlier this year. “Pre-positioned engines - that would have helped. It wouldn't have solved everything, but it would've helped.”

Last October, local fire chiefs in Sonoma and Napa counties asked for 305 engines from the mutual-aid system. Only 130 arrived within the first 12 hours - hours that saw 5,800 homes burned.

The need is real - but the Legislature doesn't appear to be listening. The state Senate only included $25 million in its budget, and the Assembly didn't include any increase at all.

A conference committee working to reconcile the two budgets must do better. Members should find the money to fully fund this request. The evidence is clear. According to the state Office of Emergency Services, the number of mutual aid requests it has been unable to fill has increased tremendously, from 134 in 2012 to 3,029 in 2016.

Each request that goes unfilled is a potential for lost lives and for thousands upon thousands of dollars in destroyed property.

The mutual aid system is a vital part of California's response to the growing threat of wildfires. Refusing this increase would be short-sighted and foolish, especially when the state is looking at a budget surplus.

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