San Francisco

State Fire Chiefs Asking For $100M to Prepare for Wildfires

California fire chiefs said Wednesday that reinforcements were too slow to arrive in last year's ferocious firestorms and asked lawmakers for $100 million to call in extra firefighters when weather conditions are ripe for a conflagration.

The fire chiefs said drought and climate change will cause longer, more severe fire seasons, and the state's "mutual aid" system for sharing resources across departments can't keep up.

It took 12 to 24 hours before fire crews began arriving from outside the area when a series of fires swept rapidly through Sonoma and Napa counties, Santa Rosa Fire Chief Tony Gossner said. Have extra firefighters and engines in place before the blazes broke out might have allowed them to keep the fires small, he said.

"We need to be more nimble in the first few hours of these incidents," Gossner said. "Prepositioned engines, that would have helped. It wouldn't have solved everything but it would've helped."

Those fires killed 44 people in several counties north of San Francisco and destroyed 8,900 buildings.

Chiefs from across the state spoke in a Senate hearing a day after state emergency management officials released a report saying officials in Sonoma County were ill-prepared, disorganized and lacked sufficient training. They did not address the report, which found that multiple alert systems, overlapping responsibilities and a failure to map out roles appear to have created inconsistent and sometimes confusing messages to the public.

In addition to overtime for firefighters during periods of danger, the chiefs also want to smooth out the bureaucratic process for requesting help from other agencies and reimbursing those who answer the call. They also want to outfit fire engines with global positioning satellite trackers so emergency managers know at a glance where engines are located.

Still, they acknowledged that more firefighters can't stop a blaze fueled by the fierce winds and hot temperatures. Mark Lorenzen, chief of the Ventura County Fire Department said his team had staffed up by 87 percent before a fire broke out in December and eventually became the largest in state history. But he said the extra firefighters were assigned to the rescue people

The request becomes part of the state budget negotiations. Gov. Jerry Brown has projected a surplus of more than $6 billion but has urged lawmakers to devote most of it to paying down debts or one-time projects, like building offices, that don't carry long-term costs. Money could also come from the state's tax on carbon emissions.

"Over the last 36 months, every time we say it's an unprecedented wildland fire it gets worse," said Sen. Mike McGuire, a Democrat from Healdsburg who represents areas devastated by the fires in Sonoma County. "I think we need to stop and saying that this is unprecedented and prepare for what our new reality truly is."

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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