SAN DIEGO — California's once-acclaimed mutual aid system among local fire departments, key to fighting the state's increasing number of massive brush fires, is being undercut by tight budgets, fire officials warned a legislative hearing Wednesday.
Mutual aid response to the Station fire, the largest fire in Los Angeles County history, was down by a third over past Southland brush fires, officials told a session of the Joint Legislative Committee on Emergency Management.
"We handled the Station fire because it was the only fire and was . . . not wind-driven," said Sheldon Gilbert, Alameda County fire chief and president of the California Fire Chiefs Assn. "Heaven forbid if we have two or three fires that are wind-driven," he said.
The region from Del Norte County to Monterey County could muster only 25 strike teams, compared with 35 that were sent south to help fight the Cedar fire that struck San Diego County in 2003, Gilbert said.
San Francisco could not spare a single engine, he said.
Local departments are being hit by cutbacks and cannot afford to help neighboring counties, particularly when they are unable to depend on their costs being reimbursed.
"There is not consistent and sustained funding to maintain the mutual aid system," said Matthew Bettenhausen, acting secretary of the California Emergency Management Agency.
"We are in serious risk of the mutual aid system not moving forward but starting to move backward" with agencies declining to participate, he said.
Gilbert and Lou Paulson, president of California Professional Firefighters, are co-chairmen of the newly reconstituted governor's task force on fire prevention. The group was formed after the 2003 fires and has been reassembled in the wake of more recent blazes.
In a joint presentation, the two put saving the mutual aid system at the top of the task force's list of unmet recommendations. Up to half of the mutual aid system could be lost due to budget cutbacks, they said.
"Local agency fire departments have been closing or browning out stations, slashing training dollars, reducing engine staffing and, in some cases, laying off firefighters," they said.
Having a "surge capacity" of engines and firefighters through mutual aid, Gilbert said, can make the difference between "a bad fire and a catastrophic one."
Paulson and Gilbert said that most of the recommendations from the 2004 task force that would have cost money have not been followed.
For example, the task force recommended that 150 engines be added to the California Emergency Management Agency fleet. So far, only 19 have been added.
Committee Chairwoman state Sen. Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) and vice-chairman Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Ventura) expressed frustration at the Legislature's refusal to endorse a levy on insurance premiums to pay for brush fire prevention and suppression.
Nava said the public does not seem to recognize the danger of brush fires and how they could harm the entire state, not just rural areas.
"They really don't have any real sense of how dire circumstances are," Nava said.
"Shame on us as a Legislature if we don't do everything in our power to elevate this so it's part of the public discussion," he said.
Kehoe said that the fires of October 2007 began in the backwoods region of San Diego County and then roared into the Rancho Bernardo and Scripps Ranch neighborhoods inside the San Diego city limits, destroying hundreds of homes.
"It shouldn't be as challenging as it is to convince Californians to support this great state," Kehoe said.