California

Are California agencies prepared to fight year-round wildfires?

Dramatic, close-up footage of Southern California wildfire battle

Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, December 10, 2017. Crews with help from water-dropping aircraft saved several homes as unpredictable gusts sent the blaze churning deeper into foothill area
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Southern California's largest and most destructive wildfire sent residents fleeing Sunday, December 10, 2017. Crews with help from water-dropping aircraft saved several homes as unpredictable gusts sent the blaze churning deeper into foothill area

Gov. Jerry Brown has described wildfires as a nearly "year-long" reality in California. Now lawmakers are scrutinizing the state's mutual aid system to ensure that fire departments are prepared to help each other fight the new normal.

State and local jurisdictions have worked together to respond to hazards through a mutual aid network for more than six decades. Under mutual aid, the local jurisdiction dealing with the emergency reasonably exhausts its own resources before requesting volunteer help from neighboring agencies. If more assistance is needed, another call goes out at the county level, then to larger regional divisions and finally statewide before other states lend a hand.

Sens. Bill Dodd, D-Napa, and Hannah-Beth Jackson, D-Santa Barbara, are leading a hearing Tuesday to examine whether the mutual aid system is prepared to deal with more frequent catastrophes. The lawmakers represent pockets of the state that were ravaged by wildfires last year.

Over a 48-hour period, 172 fires broke out in Northern California and tore through wine country last fall. At one point, Cal Fire said 1,013 engines and 263 hand crews from California were fighting the blazes. Another 266 fire engines and 79 fire crews responded from 17 other states and Australia. The blazes destroyed nearly 9,000 structures and killed 44 people.

"We had a ton of mutual aid, but there was a bunch that did not respond," said Dodd, adding that some crews were dealing with fires in their own jurisdictions in October. "If the fire chief from Santa Rosa, if he had gotten a more assistance, what would have happened?"

Massive wildfires broke out again two months later in Southern California and drew help from 21 other states. The Thomas fire, which started in Ventura County, went on to destroy 1,063 structures and kill two people. It burned over 280,000 acres and became the largest wildfire in state history.

"People came in as quickly as humanly possible," Jackson said. "There was no way they could stop it."

The hearing begins at 9:30 a.m. in room 4203 at the Capitol. Speakers include local fire chiefs and officials with Cal Fire and the Governor's Office of Emergency Services.

"Mother nature right now is very angry with us," Jackson said. "Climate change is very real. We need to figure out how to best adapt to this."

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