CALIFORNIA’S FIREFIGHTING CAPACITY IS STRESSED AND FIREFIGHTERS STRETCHED THIN BY BUDGET CUTS, FIRE CHIEFS WARN LEGISLATIVE PANEL IN SAN DIEGO

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State Fire Experts Urge Adoption of Emergency Response Initiative (ERI) 

 

By Miriam Raftery

September 23, 2009 (San Diego) - With major wildfires burning in Los Angeles and Ventura Counties and red flag warnings locally due to high fire danger, State Senator Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) chaired a joint legislative committee hearing on emergency management in San Diego today. Fire chiefs and legislators presented grim warnings that California’s fire and emergency preparedness has been stretched too thin by budget cuts, placing area residents in jeopardy. Here are a few samples of the dire concerns raised:

”It’s October. The winds are kicking up, and we are really challenged…There are blackouts, brownouts, and reduced strike teams.“ – San Diego Fire Chief Tracy Jarmon

“Our members, they’ve all said that constraints of the budgets at state and county levels are wearing our firefighters out.” – Lou Paulson, President, California Professional Firefighers

“The system is stressed…There is zero margin for error…50 engines have dropped off the grid since the Cedar Fire…San Francisco ran out of engines. There are brownouts and blackouts at fire districts around the state…We handled the Station Fire in Los Angeles because it was the only fire…Heaven forbid if we had had three or four fires in Southern California and they were wind-driven.” – Chief Sheldon Gilbert, Co-Chair, Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force and Fire Chief, Alameda County

Our fire prevention budget is shamefully low..Firefighting costs have increased 100% in the last five years…I want to see more put in at the front end.” – Senator Christine Kehoe

“We have a world class mutual aid system in California….That kind of cooperation at the state and local level is in jeopardy….Our fleet needs to be doubled to 250 engines. There is no money in this budget…We are seriously at risk.” – Matthew Bettenhausen, Acting Secretary, California Emergency Management Association

“Most people think it’s inconceivable that there could ever be a fire and there would be no response…but economic pressures are causing local governments to think twice about how many resources to commit [to wildfires in neighboring communities]...I don’t think people have any idea how dire the situation is.” – Assemblyman Pedro Nava

The hearing, held at the Cal-Trans building in Old Town, sought to determine the effectiveness of state fire and emergency response agencies in combating fires year-round, given funding constraints. It also explored suggestion of a revived Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force for implementing recommendations made (but never implemented) in 2004 to improve Califiornia’s firefighting capabilities.

The answers were far from reassuring.

“Wind-driven fires have taken a terrible toll on the public,” Kehoe said. The costs of fighting wildfires in California are staggering—nearly half a billion dollars in the 2008-2009 fiscal year alone, and $4.5 billion from 2003 through 2010. From 2003-04 to 2008-09, spending on fire suppression grew 74% due to increasingly frequent and severe wildfires.

“From 2003 to 2009, spending on firefighting has increased $400 million without protecting any additional areas,” Kehoe observed. “This is scientific fact,” she said, citing Scripps Institute as a source. “Wildfires will be larger, more intense, and more frequent.” That increase is due to global climate change; increased development in the backcountry is further stressing firefighting resources, Kehoe said.

Yet California’s fiscal year 2009-10 is budgeted for a lower fire suppression cost.

Kehoe told reporters she wants to see more spent up front on fire prevention, which currently accounts for only $78 miliion—just 2.9% of the staggering sums spent battling fires after they start. “We also need to look at evaluating the cost of year-round firefighting capabilities,” she said, noting that the state has relied on borrowing money from other sources to fund emergency firefighting.

Testimony revealed that the capacity to battle the month-long Station Fire in Los Angeles has been dangerously thin—so thin that had other serious fires occurred simultaneously, there were not enough resources left to call in.

CAL-FIRE has increased staffing temporarily and pre-positioned extra equipment in San Diego during this time of high winds, low humidity and high temperatures, what Kehoe termed “a recipe for wildfires.”

“Our annual funding is not adequate. Our fire prevention budget is shamefully low,” said Kehoe.

She also criticized local jurisdictions for allowing new construction in fire-prone rural areas without providing adequate fire protection.

“There are more than 100,000 homes in the pipeline to be built in high-fire zones, yet we still have no county-wide standards for fire safety in high-fire zones in the backcountry,” Kehoe said.

Chief Del Walters, Director of CAL FIRE, said the Governor has exempted CAL FIRE from furloughs that have forced other state agencies to cope with employees off work for three days a month. But the Governor could reconsider the furlough issue at year’s end.

Matthew Bettenhausen, Acting Secretary of the California Emergency Management Association (EMA) said his agency is coping with furloughs and other budget issues. “It’s been a very difficult year for us all,” he said, adding that EMA wants to involve more citizen volunteers to improve preparedness for emergencies such as earthquakes, mudslides, and H1N1 flu epidemic as well as fires.

“We have a world class mutual aid system in California,” he said. “No single agency is capable of handling some of these big fires or earthquakes.” But he warned, “That kind of cooperation at the state and local level is in jeopardy.”

Some progress has been made, Bettenhausen said, including adding 19 fire engines that can provide search and rescue 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, as well as improving communications. But the state’s fleet of 127 engines capable of surging forward to respond to a major crisis is inadequate, he said. “The fleet needs to be doubled to 250 engines. There is no money in this budget.”

Currently, two-thirds of those engines are provided through mutual aid agreements that can provide 100 strike teams, each with five engines, in the first 24 hours and more subsequently.

“You’re local fire departments are paying for the privilege to go help a neighbor, and that’s not fair.” Under mutual aid agreements, the federal government reimburses local firefighting agencies 75% of costs and the state funds another 19%, leaving local departments to foot the bill for 6.2% of costs for fighting fires elsewhere. Now, with their own budgets stretched to the limit, some local agencies are turning down requests for help. “When we ask what’s available, we’re seeing one-third less in what people are offering up,” Bettenhausen disclosed.

He confirmed that the mutual aid system is at serious risk and added that if not for the Governor’s line-item veto to create a $500 million emergency reserve, public safety would be at risk. After the meeting, Kehoe voiced concerns that the Governor’s vetoes, while improving fire protection somewhat, took that money by slashed funds for children’s health, aid to the disabled, and education including deep cuts for the University of California and California State University systems.

So what’s the solution to create a more stable, long-term funding source for fire suppression and fire prevention?

Fire officials advocated for adoption of an Emergency Response Initiative (IRI) which would levy a fee on every insurance policy to fund mutual aid, aviation resources and other firefighting needs. To critics who have argued that urban dwellers shouldn’t have to pay for fire protection for people choosing to live in backcountry areas, he retorts, “The concept that fire is only about the backcountry is a fallacy,” noting recent evacuations in downtown Santa Barbara and coastal areas in San Diego County.

In addition, the ERI would assure funding for other emergencies besides fire. Bettenhausen warned that California is overdue for a major earthquake. “There is no time to wait,” he said. “You have a fire risk after an earthquake.” Computer modeling reveals that “1,600 fires will be spontaneously created by an earthquake—and our firefighters will have to fight that with broken equipment and broken water systems.” If a quake occurs during Santa Ana winds, the reality could be even worse than computer projections, he said.

The ERI would fund replacement of Viet Nam War-era planes with modern twin-engine helicopters to help fight fires, helping to save taxpayers money in the long run, he believes. “Fires after an earthquake would cause $100 billion in economic loss,” he noted.

Chief Walters wants to have more cooperative efforts with the military. Recently, CAL-FIRE deployed military troops with hand tools to help fight fires as “foot soldiers.” He envisions using military crews to mop up fires that have been stopped, freeing CAL FIRE attack forces to battle new blazes.

A San Diego State University Study estimated total costs of the 2003 wildfires (including the devastating Cedar Fire) at $2.5 billion—including infrastructure loss and job loss as well as property damage and loss of lives. Yet cost of suppression was less than 2% of that bill.

“Ironically, since 1970-71, we have 2% fewer fire engines, and we are down 40 in inmate fire crews,” Walters said. He added that CAL FIRE also lost $10.8 million in annual funding since 2003 to replace its aging engine fleet.

CAL FIRE drew criticism from Kehoe for spending only 3% of its budget on fire prevention, but praise for the heroic efforts of firefighters struggling to do more with less.

The number of fires has increased by 2,000 recently, yet the area burned is actually down 800,000 acres a fact Walters attributes in part to having a fourth firefighter now on every engine.

A spirited discussion on building in the backcountry also ensued. Kehoe asked how to get local governments to require more rigorous standards for new development in high-fire hazard severity zones. “We’ve seen a movement nationally to reduce building in flood zones,” she said, then noted that research from universities and other institutions have identified high-fire zones. “It seems to me there is an opportunity there to do the same thing and keep people and businesses out of high-fire risk areas.” She urged CAL FIRE to identify high-fire risk areas, such as canyons with only one road in and out.

Nava observed pointedly, “If local jurisdictions are unwilling to make the difficult decisions on land use, then somebody else is going to have to do it.” He suggested that the state may have to come up with standards for backcountry development, overriding local entities.

Bettenhausen revealed that a new state emergency plan has just been released, updated after ten years, with a goal to have different agencies “speaking the same language.”

He also praised San Diego for partnering with Allstate and Farmers Insurance to help get fire safety information out to the public.

Another problem identified by panelists is that federal grants are “skewed against California doing the right thing” because CAL FIRE is viewed as a state agency and therefore can’t apply for grant funding, even though it provides fire protection to local communities. “Fires are mostly based in western communities and there should be a needs-based assement,” he said. “The ERI, another advantage is that if could be used to incease matches at the federal level…Why should the feds give us money?” The answer is mutual aid, he said, noting that FEMA has no urban seaerch and rescue.

Tonya Hoover, acting state fire marshal, called for education, engineering and enforcement efforts to encourage homeowners to take responsibility for vegetation management. Kehoe also asked if building standards at the state level are sufficient to prevent damage from wildfires.

Hoover said planners should be educated on fire risks. Kehoe agreed that education is needed, but added, “I suggest legislation could play a strong role…If at the local level they continue to approve developments in high-fire hazards areas then we are working at cross purposes.”

Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries asked whether the rate of burned homes was lower among newer construction that may have greenbelts and more fire-resistant materials than older homes. Kehoe cited Forest Ranch as a local example of a new development that survived the 2007 fires.

Lou Paulson is co-chair of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Task Force and President of California Professional Firefighters. He echoed concerns about risks to California’s mutual aid system. “In the history of the United States, we’ve gone from a system of firefighting that was dependent on which insurance company may get a fire put out to a system of mutual aid…all of that is at great risk.”

He said budget cuts have led to longer articles and firefighters forced to do more with less. “Our members, they’ve all said that the constraints of the budget at the state and local levels are wearing our firefighters out.”
Gilbert observed dryly, “Those 100 year old fires continue to occur every few years.” He said many recommendations in the 2004 Blue Ribbon report have not been implemented and should be funded. As an example, he said the committee wants to develop an omnibus comprehensive community fire-safe model with a goal of keeping fires at ten acres or less.

He said if development is allowed in high-fire danger zones, fire protection should be required. Those protections could include building new fire stations, mutual aid agreements and availability of air power.

“I have to tell you that right now, the system is stressed,” he disclosed. “There is zero margin for error.”
Specifically, he said, “Fifty engines have dropped off the grid since the Cedar Fire. San Francisco…they ran out of engines. There are brown outs and black outs around the state.” The Task Force plans to bring its proposal to the state Legislature after the recess or earlier, if a special session is called.

“Plausible deniability in California is gone. We know the risks,” Gilbert warned. “We handled the Station Fire because it was the only fire,” he noted, but added, “Heaven forbid if we had not had three or four fires in Southern California, and they were wind drivien.”

Nava praised Cal Fire for its efforts, then added that they are victims of their own success in cobbling together quality service even though under-funded. But he cautioned, “It’s inconceivable to most peole to think there could ever be a fire and there would be no response…But economic pressures are causing local governments to think twice about how many resources they should commit…I don’t think people have any idea how dire the system is, the poor who are not getting services understand, but for most people they don’t see it.”
The legislator added, “Shame on us as a Legislature if we don’t raise this issue and educate the public.”

Paulson agreed on the need for educating the public. “Don’t voters want to know what protection they have? In San Diego in particular…People in Rancho Bernard never thought they were in a wildland-urban interface until the fire came.”

Kehoe concurred. “Rancho Bernardo and Scripps Ranch, they don’t see themselves as the backcountry.” She added that we are “so lucky” we haven’t lost more lives in local wildfires, then resolved, “We need to make it unacceptable for the Legislature to sidestep this issue again.”

The Legislative Analyst prepared a brief but didn’t support all of the recommendations, such as the need for an Air Resources Coordinator. The analyst also wanted a wild fire fee, not an insurance fee, Kehoe said.

Gilbert defended the need for funds. “We need that funding to replace 1960s antiquated aircraft. There is no more important way to attack those fires than with early response aircraft. I don’t know where they come up with the idea that this is not cost effective. You can increase fly time, decrease ground resources and reduce losses from the fire.”

Kehoe expressed frustration. “We are not moving forward towards a revenue solution,” she said.

Gilbert said the only thing separating a local fire from a catastrophic fire is often “a thin blue line.” He said old apparatus used in the last fires “normally wouldn’t have been put out except in a a parade.”

Kehoe noted that recommendations of the blue ribbon commission made in 2003 or 2004 have never been adopted. “We’re still not getting enough done.”

Of the initiative, Paulson pledged, “We are asking local fire chiefs to support this so we are all speaking with one voice.”
A discussion was also held on vegetation management. “Sometimes I think fire officials want us to mow everything down and think we’ll all be better off,” said Kehoe, noting that others promote a more nuanced approach to income use of native plants, for instance.

Gilbert replied, “It’s all of those things.”

During public comments, San Diego Fire Chief Tracy Jarmon addressed committee members. “It’s almost October. The winds are starting to kick up and we are really challenged,” she admitted. “There are brown outs, black outs…reduced strike teams.” Typically San Diego has sent out six strike teams, but she revealed, “We’re loking at reducing that by one half due to the length of the Station Fire and now, the Ventura Fire. “San Diego is also looking at a deployment study of the region to discover what the appropriate fire response should be."

Donna Tisdale, Chair of the Boulevard Planning Committee, attested that multiple high-fire danger projects including powerlines and turbines have been proposed for the Boulevard-Campo region. These infrastructure items can cause fires, yet the region is the same area where SDG&E has proposed shutting off power during fire season. Keep our public health and safety in mind,” she urged committee members.

Tisdale also revealed that a paroled arsonist had been living in her committee, unbeknownst to community members. She called for a law to require notification of the community when an arsonist is paroled, just as community members are entitled by law to know if a paroled sex offender is living in their midst.

ECM Editor Miriam Raftery noted that if an arsonist started 167 fires he could be put in jail for life, then noted that SDG&E admits to starting 167 fires in the past five and a half years. She asked if the Legislature would consider incentives or penalties to encourage public utilities to maintain or underground lines, and also why no stimulus funds have been proposed for an infrastructure project to underground power lines. ECM Business Manager Leon Thompson noted that prisoners used to cut firebreaks and asked whether changes in environmental restrictions should be considered to allow more brush thinning.

Another speaker claimed the public has been oversold on value of defensible space. “Some contractors are removing so much vegetation with bulldozers that they are causing grading violations, yet the county is not citing them for grading violations,” she said.

J.C. Thomas, spokesperson for SDG&E, revealed that the utility has a three-prong plan that includes preparedness, prevention and response to disasters. SDG&E worked with State Farm and Allstate to be out “knocking on doors” educating people on fire safety, he said. The company is also using technology to detect outages and restore power earlier.

In addition, he said SDG&E now has a “wildfire strike team” of five engines and a crew of ten (two per engine) to help suppress fires involving fire lines. “We also have a type-2 helicopter” Thomas revealed. The helicopter will be stationed her 60-90 days starting October 10. Next year, SDG&E plans to have the chopper here year-round, as the utility aspires to begin building Sunrise Powerlink. “We all need to take steps now with prevention or suppression,” he said.

Diane Conklin, Mussey Grade Road Alliance and a community leader battling Sunrise Powerlink, she criticized SDG&E for being too slow to replace wood poles with metal. She said San Diego County is going in the “wrong direction” and that the County has plans for a massive new development in fire-prone Ramona.

After the hearing, Conklin shared her sentiments with ECM. “I’m really very pleased that Senator Kehoe is looking seriously at planning for the wildland-urban interface and into the rural areas of the county.”

Kehoe, speaking to ECM after the meeting, said party politics over the budget impasse has fueled the firefighting and emergency response shortages. “There was a partisan element unfortunately. Our Republican colleagues cannot vote for any taxes or fees. That is unbreakable,” she said, adding that the legislators will likely be reelected because of gerrymandering that keep districts safe for incumbents—even those vote as a block against raising revenues to fully funding fire safety and other key public services.

“That is crippling our fire and emergency services, and crippling education,” Kehoe concluded.