For nearly 70 years, California fire departments have fought blazes statewide through a codified system of neighbor helping neighbor.
But as catastrophic windblown wildfires strike with more frequency, California’s system of mutual aid is under stress, with fire chiefs sometimes reluctant to assist their counterparts or unaware help is needed because of outdated communications.
Chiefs of the state’s biggest fire departments say the connective tissue of mutual aid has become weakened in the last 20 years. The days of sending every available resource to help put out a neighbor’s fire without question has been replaced with hesitation — should some be held back to save money, or in case another fire erupts nearby?
“In 2003 in San Diego, I was a battalion chief, the way we supported mutual aid was, if you asked, we sent,” said Brian Fennessy, now chief of the Orange County Fire Authority. “We didn’t talk about drawing down [resources]. How far should we allow ourselves to be drawn down? That wasn’t even a conversation.”
That 2003 firestorm was a game changer for mutual aid, Fennessy said. In a matter of days, thousands of homes were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of acres were burned across San Diego and San Bernardino counties. More than 20 lives were claimed. The Cedar fire was the one of the last of the big blazes to ignite and San Diego County found itself outgunned, with the bulk of its force fighting fires to the north.
“There was some political pressure at that point that, ‘Wait a minute, as a county and city fire protection district, you shouldn’t allow yourself to get so drawn down where you can’t provide basic services,’” Fennessy said. “‘Maybe I won’t send six strike teams. Maybe I’ll send three.’”
At the same time, the state’s mutual-aid computer program, the Resource Ordering and Status System, or ROSS, is antiquated — better designed for logging pay and hours than rapidly shifting resources across multiple counties.
In a perfect world, ROSS would rapidly identify which fire departments are best positioned to respond to a developing blaze and alert them. But commanders say the system is so outdated it hinders them from getting to the scene of a fire quickly.
As a workaround, the chiefs of Southern California’s biggest firefighting agencies — Los Angeles, Ventura and Orange counties along with Los Angeles City Fire — say they now circumvent the mutual-aid system altogether in the first stages of fighting a fast-moving fire.
When the Saddleridge fire broke out in Sylmar in late October, Fennessy said he dispatched firefighters before the request arrived at his station. When the 46 fire broke out in Riverside County in the middle of the night amid powerful winds, Los Angeles County sent two teams of engines and firefighters even though the request didn’t reach dispatchers until 9:30 a.m., officials said.
“From the perspective of accountability and tracking resources, it’s a good tool,” Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said of the mutual-aid software. “But from a perspective of getting resources to an incident quickly, it creates delays.”
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The system is essentially facing challenges on two fronts: not enough resources and aging technology.
The lack of resources was highlighted last month when Los Angeles County released its after-action report on the Woolsey fire.
In the Woolsey fire‘s first 10 hours, commanders requested 299 additional fire engines and received only 42% of what they’d asked for. By the time the worst of the blaze was over, requests for 874 engines had gone unfulfilled, or 50% of what commanders asked for never arrived. Crews had been stretched thin by the time the Woolsey fire broke out due to the Camp fire in Paradise and the Hill fire in Ventura County, which started less than an hour before Woolsey and was a more immediate threat to nearby structures.
“It’s a domino effect. The more fires you have, the bigger the fires, the longer that they last, that is resource-taxing,” said Brian Marshall, the fire and rescue chief for the California Office of Emergency Services, which coordinates the mutual-aid program statewide. “The mutual-aid system is alive and well, but you can only tax it so much.”
Fire chiefs say that the farther away the request for resources goes, the less likely they are to receive a full order and the longer it will take for those firefighters to arrive. Crews that are deployed to major fires can be away for weeks at a time.
“If it’s my neighbor, I’m going to send a lot out there, even if I’m experiencing [bad] conditions,” Fennessy said. But in the Kincade fire, he sent just one strike team up to Sonoma County. “I couldn’t send 10 up north because of the weather that was forecasted. At least in L.A., San Diego, I know they’ll come back.”
The report revealed a dramatic increase in the number of mutual-aid requests that have gone unfulfilled since at least 2012.
In 2012, requests for 134 fire engines and water tenders were unfulfilled through the system. By 2015, the year that the wind-driven Valley fire burned Clear Lake, that number climbed to 954.
In 2016, the stubborn Soberanes fire took months to put out and unfilled mutual-aid requests jumped to more than 3,000 engines. The number hit an all-time high the next year when requests for 6,134 engines and water tenders went unfulfilled amid the fires in wine country and the Thomas fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. Unfilled mutual-aid requests dropped to 2,724 last year.
Marshall said the state is slowly trying to build up its fleet to match the increasing need.
But it has been slow going, so far.
Following the 2003 fire siege, a blue-ribbon commission set up by the state called for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to add 150 engines and more aircraft. Some of those engines could be deployed in 2020, Marshall said. The department is also adding nighttime flying helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft that can drop retardant over the next few years, though those have little use against the wind-driven fires that cause the most damage.
Once they’re all incorporated into the state’s fleet, commanders will still have to negotiate the state’s software to deploy them. When the situation is urgent, local agencies opt to just work around it in the short term.
Local fire chiefs reach out to each other individually when resources are needed immediately, said Los Angeles Fire Department Chief Ralph Terrazas. “I texted [Ventura County Fire Chief Mark] Lorenzen when the Easy fire began and showed him a projection of where it would go and told him we’re sending a strike team and a helitanker. On the same text was Osby and Fennessy and they texted they were sending two strike teams each.”
Sometimes such requests can take hours to flow through the system. After the 2007 recession, when local governments everywhere began to tighten their spending, a culture of “waiting for the order to come through” took hold when the requests were big and far away.
“I may not know the chiefs so they are essentially waiting for the coordination center to fill them in,” said Glendale Fire Chief Silvio Lanzas, who similarly relies on close relationships with his neighboring departments. “There is definitely a slowdown in the resource ordering process.”
Despite its flaws, every fire chief interviewed said that California’s mutual-aid system continues to serve as a global model for moving massive amounts of resources relatively efficiently. But after the Woolsey fire report, others are less confident.
In October, Los Angeles County Supervisor Janice Hahn said the system was essentially “broken” and called for the county to hire more firefighters.
“It has been 20 years since we invested in our Fire Department, and it is about time we get them the resources they need,” she said in a statement.