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.