For nearly 70 years, California fire departments fought fires across the country through a codified system of neighbors helping neighbors.
But as catastrophic bush fires hit more and more frequently, California's self-help system is under severe strain, with fire chiefs sometimes reluctant to assist counterparts, or unconscious help is needed because of outdated communications.
Chiefs of the state's largest fire departments said the connective tissue of mutual aid had weakened over the last 20 years. The days of sending all the resources available to help extinguish a neighbor's fire without asking any questions have been replaced by hesitations: should some of them be retained to save money or in the event of a fire? proximity?
"In 2003, in San Diego, I was battalion commander. We have sent mutual aid to support mutual aid, "said Brian Fennessy, now chief of the Orange County Firefighting Authority. "We did not talk about drawing [resources]. Until where should we be allowed to be drawn? It was not even a conversation.
This 2003 fire storm changed the game for self-help, Fennessy said. In a few days, thousands of homes were destroyed and hundreds of thousands of acres burned in San Diego and San Bernardino counties. More than 20 lives have been claimed. Cedar fire was one of the last big fires to ignite and San Diego County was exhausted, with most of its strength fighting fires in the north.
"There was some political pressure at that time," Wait a minute, as a county and city fire protection district, you should not allow yourself to be dragged to where you can not provide basic services, "said Fennessy." Maybe I will not send six strike teams I'll send maybe three.
At the same time, the State's mutual aid computer program, the State Resource and Control System [ROSS], is obsolete – it is better designed to record pay and hours worked than resources quickly transferred to several counties.
In a perfect world, ROSS would quickly identify fire departments best positioned to respond to and respond to a rapidly developing fire. But commanders say the system is so obsolete that it prevents them from quickly going to the scene of a fire.
As a workaround, chiefs of Southern California's largest firefighting agencies – Los Angeles, Ventura, Orange and Los Angeles City Fire counties – say they are now bypassing the system. helping one another in the early stages of fighting a fast-moving fire.
When the Saddleridge fire erupted in Sylmar late October, Fennessy announced that he had sent firefighters before the request arrived at his post. When the fire erupted in Riverside County in the middle of the night, in strong winds, Los Angeles County sent two teams of engines and firefighters, although the request was not sent to regulators before 9:30 am, officials said.
"From an accountability and resource tracking perspective, it's a good tool," said Daryl Osby, Los Angeles County Fire Chief, about the mutual aid software. "But from the point of view of quickly obtaining resources for an incident, this creates delays."
The system is essentially facing challenges on two fronts: lack of resources and aging of technology.
The lack of resources was highlighted last month when Los Angeles County released its after action report on the Woolsey Fire.
During the first 10 hours of the Woolsey fire, commanders requested 299 additional firefighters and received only 42% of what they requested. At the end of the worst fire, requests for 874 engines were not met, or 50% of the commanders' requests never arrived. The crews had been reduced to a minimum when the Woolsey fire had broken out due to fires at the Paradise and Hill camps in Ventura County, which had started less than an hour before Woolsey and posed a threat more immediate for nearby structures.
"It's a domino effect. The more fires, the bigger the fires, the longer they last, which consumes a lot of resources, "said Brian Marshall, Fire and Emergency Services Chief, Emergency Services Office. from California, which coordinates the mutual aid program throughout the state. "The mutual aid system works well, but you can only tax it to a great extent."
Fire chiefs say that the further the demand for resources is, the less likely they are to receive a full order and the longer firefighters will have to arrive. Teams deployed in major fires may be away for weeks.
"If it's my neighbor, I'll send a lot, even if I have [bad] conditions," said Fennessy. But in the Kincade fire, he only sent a strike team in Sonoma County. "I could not send 10 people to the north because of weather forecasts. At least in Los Angeles, San Diego, I know they'll come back.
The report revealed a dramatic increase in the number of unsatisfied mutual assistance requests since at least 2012.
In 2012, requests for 134 firefighter vehicles and calls for water offers were not satisfied by the system. In 2015, the year when the Valley Fire caused by the wind burned Clear Lake, this number climbed to 954.
In 2016, Soberanes' stubborn fire took months to go out and unsatisfied mutual aid demands rose to more than 3,000 engines. The following year, their number reached an unprecedented level when requests for 6,134 engines and calls for water offerings were not met in the midst of fires in the vineyards and fires of Thomas in the counties of Ventura and Santa Barbara. Unsatisfied mutual aid requests fell to 2,724 last year.
Marshall said the state was slowly trying to build its fleet to meet growing demand.
But it has been slow, until now.
After the 2003 fire siege, a blue ribbon commission set up by the state called on the California Department of Forests and Fire Protection to add 150 engines and more to the fire. aircraft. Some of these engines could be deployed in 2020, Marshall said. The ministry also adds night-flying helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft that may slow down the slowdown in the next few years, although these are of little use against the most damaging wind-blast fires.
Once they are all integrated into the state fleet, commanders will still have to negotiate state software to deploy them. When the situation is urgent, local agencies choose to work around the problem in the short term.
Local fire chiefs contact each other when resources are needed immediately, said Los Angeles Fire Chief Ralph Terrazas. "I sent a text message to Mark Lorenzen [Ventura County Fire Chief] when the Easy Fire started and showed him a projection of his destination, telling him that we were sending a strike team and a helitanker. Osby and Fennessy were on the same text and they sent an SMS stating that they were each sending two strike teams. "
Sometimes such requests may take hours to circulate in the system. After the 2007 recession, when local governments began tightening their spending all over the world, a culture of "waiting for order" settled when the demands were large and faraway .
"I may not know the leaders, so they basically expect the coordination center to fulfill them," said Glendale Fire Chief Silvio Lanzas, who also relies on close relationships with his departments. neighbors. "There is definitely a slowdown in the process of ordering resources."
Despite its shortcomings, all fire chiefs interviewed said that California's mutual aid system continues to serve as a global model for the relatively efficient management of large amounts of resources. But after the fire report of Woolsey, others are less confident.
In October, LA County Supervisor Janice Hahn said the system was essentially "down" and called on the county to hire more firefighters.
"We've been investing in our fire department for 20 years and it's time to give them the resources they need," she said in a statement.