The deadly October firestorms overloaded California’s antiquated mutual aid system, causing delays in getting critically needed firefighters and equipment to Sonoma County, fire chiefs testified Tuesday before a panel of state lawmakers in Sacramento.
Bay Area fire agencies knew their North Bay neighbors needed help in the first hours of the fires that erupted Oct. 8, and they had firefighters and engines poised to deploy. But the state’s software system — which is processed by dispatchers who were overwhelmed by so many requests for assistance — meant the early requests for as many as 400 extra engines placed by Cal Fire and local fire officials weren’t completely processed for many hours, chiefs said.
“We could hear the incident command in the North Bay fires asking for resources and we were unable to send them,” said Contra Costa County Fire Chief Jeff Carman, who had crews ready but no orders. “We were not able to get an order for hours.”
It wasn’t until Day 3, when the Santa Rosa and Sonoma Valley fires already had carved out their paths of destruction, that enough mutual aid arrived to give local agencies some relief and make a significant difference, said Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner, who spoke at the hearing.
“It gets there, it just doesn’t get there fast enough for the types of fire we experience,” Gossner said. “These fires were moving so quickly, in today’s world we need to get mutual aid quicker on the road.”
Of the hundreds of mutual aid engines requested in the first hours of the North Bay fires, only 130 were sent in the first 12 hours, said state Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg. “There is simply not enough capacity in our current system,” he said.
The testimony came during a two-hour hearing examining the state’s mutual aid system. The system, which pools local, state and out-of-state resources to fight fires and respond to other disasters, is touted as the nation’s gold standard. Nine chiefs representing all of the city, county, district and volunteer agencies, plus Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott and Mark Ghilarducci, director of state Office of Emergency Services, spoke before the Senate Governmental Organization Committee and Joint Committee on Emergency Management.
With several years of devastating blazes throughout the state, including the deadly North Bay fires and the Southern California blazes and mudslides in December, senators wanted an overview of the state’s mutual aid system.
The chiefs are asking the state for $100 million to add dispatchers, extra equipment and manpower at predicted times of weather trouble and position them in known problem spots.
The chiefs all praised the system’s uniform command structure and ability to bring in resources from around the nation and internationally — as happened in October in Sonoma County. But they also used terms such as “clunky” and “slow and antiquated” to describe the half-century-old system that no longer can keep up with the immediate needs of fast-moving wildland blazes.
They also said the state’s mutual aid disaster system and fire prevention efforts also need new technology, better forecasting and improved dispatch software, coupled with tougher vegetation management regulations, forestry management to clear out dying trees and upgraded building code regulations.
Gossner’s testimony reflected some of the frustration and emotion of Oct. 8 and 9 as he told of how hundreds of local firefighters did what they could in the face of racing fires, thousands of burning homes and tens of thousands people needing to be evacuated.