“Things have changed in the last 50 years, and before we depended on mutual aid to get us mutual aid in first 12 to 24 hours. Now we need them in first minutes to hours.”
– Fire Chief Jeff Carman, Metro Fire Chiefs Association (CBS Sacramento, 2/27/18)
Mega fires, mudslides and other extreme weather disasters are California’s “new normal.”
In the past six months, California experienced the most destructive fires and deadliest mudslides in our history. Our fire season is now year-round. Wildfires burn faster, larger and longer than ever. In the past 10 years alone, we have seen the state’s worst drought and heaviest recorded rainfall.
These climate-driven disasters should serve as a wake-up call to state and local policymakers.
Getting help to a disaster in a few hours is no longer enough to protect communities. We need help in the initial minutes of a disaster.
California relies on a 68-year old disaster response network known as the Mutual Aid System. It allows local governments to share disaster response resources during large-scale emergencies. But it is a “reactive” system, designed to send resources within 12-24 hours. In Santa Rosa, just 130 of more than 400 requests for mutual aid were filled in the initial hours because dispatch systems were overwhelmed. Sufficient help to contain the fire didn’t arrive until the third day.
We don’t need a new Mutual Aid System. Rather, it needs to be modernized to be more proactive to combat the intensity and severity of the conditions we are facing today.
Waiting for a disaster to strike is no longer an acceptable strategy. We can save lives and protect communities by pre-positioning firefighters and equipment in areas where high risks are predicted.
We have to increase the pace and scale of our disaster response. Putting first responders and equipment in a position to quickly address these climate-driven emergencies before extreme weather events — a strategy called pre-positioning — has proven to be effective at reducing loss of lives and property. “Situational awareness” tools exist to predict where and when fires will ignite and spread due to high-velocity winds and the location of available resources. Similar tools can also define the risk of mudslides, flooding and other natural disasters.
We must incorporate and use these predictive tools into our disaster response system – and take action when high-risk events are identified.
$100 million in funding is needed to allow local fire agencies to employ pre-positioning as a disaster readiness strategy and to equip them with the 21st century tools they need to get in front of fast-moving fires and other disasters.
The state needs to appropriate $100 million in FY 2018-19 to reimburse local fire agencies for their costs to staff up and pre-position resources. Deployment of rapid-response strike teams (of five fire engines, 20 fighters and one command leader) cost local governments approximately $50,000 per day.
Improved communications and resource tracking technologies will give firefighters better and faster information about fast-moving disasters.
There is no better way to reduce risks and mitigate the impacts of climate-driven disasters than to be ready to fight fires and other disasters in the first hour.