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Read all of the PD's fire coverage here

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.

He explained how the Tubbs fire traveled from Calistoga to Santa Rosa in just over four hours, pushed by extreme weather conditions and ferocious winds. At the same time, the Atlas fire burned in Napa County, and several fires had broken out in the Sonoma Valley.

His voice reflecting the still-raw feelings from the night’s dramatic stories, Gossner told how firefighters on three engines saved some 150 people trapped in a senior facility in Fountaingrove.

“We couldn’t evacuate them. We put them in one wing,” he said. When the approaching fire reached the building, the 10 or so firefighters stopped it from spreading and likely saved all their lives, he said.

“We did everything we could to make sure the building didn’t catch fire,” he said. “What these fire folks did in that area and how they responded, with no extra (help), protecting vital infrastructure and trying to protect and save lives. …”

The Santa Rosa chief also expressed frustration with communication issues as overloaded dispatchers and moving fires made it difficult to get clear information on what was happening and where.

Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen told lawmakers about the experience in December during the fires in Southern California, where the agencies have more resources. Facing 60 mph winds on Dec. 4, fire officials had almost doubled their on-duty staff and had them set in fire‑prone places.

And while they used the state’s mutual aid system, which Lorenzen called “effective after 24 hours,” they didn’t wait for it to kick in.

“We have experienced delays and choke points, he said. “We phone a friend and go outside the system” to get added help as fast as possible.

As a result of the lesson he learned in the North Bay fires, Carman didn’t wait for an order to send equipment south when the Southern California fires broke out in December.

Gossner said local chiefs did some of that during the 2015 Valley fire in Lake County, sending help before getting official orders. And in October, San Francisco firefighters didn’t wait to be told officially, but headed north. Still, that can add to confusion, Gossner said, as dispatchers can be unaware agencies have already acted.

McGuire supported the financial request, calling for $100 million more annually to handle the increased strain on departments with “California’s new normal” of fast-moving, more destructive fires. While the cost is a lot of money, he said it is far less than the $9.5 billion in insurance losses paid out and the dozens of lives lost.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707‑521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter@rossmannreport.

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