An Ever-Expanding Disaster Risk is Transforming the California Fire Service

In the pre-dawn hours on October 9th, a Berkeley Fire Department strike team rolled into Santa Rosa, called in on a mutual aid response to what they thought was a large wildland fire. As they arrived in their assigned staging area – a Kmart parking lot in northwest Santa Rosa – they knew it was much bigger: The Kmart was completely up in flames. “Are you serious?” wondered one incredulous Engine 6 firefighter. 

Just across the 101 freeway, Rebecca Menzel was furiously hustling her youngest daughter into a car to escape their home in Santa Rosa’s Mark West Estates, stopping only to pick up an elderly neighbor. Her Novato firefighter husband Dimitri – rushing back from Santa Barbara – had suggested she might be safer staying put, but Rebecca had eyes on the fire and got out. “I was never happier that my wife didn’t listen to me,” Dimitri later joked.

The North Bay Firestorm that would unfold in the blistering week that followed was, by many accounts, one for the ages: 43 deaths (most ever in a single fire incident in California history), more than 8,000 structures lost, total losses estimated in the billions. More than three dozen firefighters lost their own homes in the event – many of them while they were themselves on the fire lines. 

For the California fire service, cataclysmic events are starting to seem like just another day at the office. In just the second half of 2017, a string of incidents – far flung and close-to-home – have tested the capabilities, training, stamina and courage of the state’s first responders:

July: A series of windblown wildland fires charred an area the size of New York City, sending tens of thousands fleeing from their homes. At the height of the fires, upwards of 10,000 firefighters were mobilized, with nearly three-quarters coming from hundreds of local agency departments.

August: Hurricanes Harvey and Irma prompted mobilization of six of California’s eight Urban Search and Rescue Task Forces. More than two hundred California firefighters conducted the grim response effort: one Los Angeles City crew was on its way home from Harvey when it was redirected east to Florida.

September: September began with the largest fire in the history of the city of Los Angeles – the 7,500 acre LaTuna Fire. More than 1,000 firefighters from nearly four-dozen local agencies answered the call to the blaze, which forced evacuation of sections of Burbank, Glendale and unincorporated Los Angeles County. 

October: At the beginning of the month, dozens of California firefighters were thrust into life-saving action under fire when a deranged sniper targeted a concert they were attending. At least half a dozen were wounded, and there were countless stories of heroism. Within a week, the North Bay fires exploded.

December: A late-season Santa Ana wind event blows a Ventura County brush fire into the largest wildfire in California history. The Thomas Fire destroyed at least 800 structures, and once again forced over 8,000 firefighters onto the front lines. 

These and other incidents are only the latest signposts pointing to a rapidly building sea change in the extent of the burden borne by the California fire service and the men and women at its heart. 

“Our profession is being transformed before our eyes,” said CPF President Lou Paulson. “We’re entering a new era with new duties, new threats and a greater responsibility to those we serve.”


The fire problem: Everybody’s problem

When the Tubbs Fire began its deadly race to the suburbs of northeast Santa Rosa, few could have predicted the destructive path it would leave in its wake. In addition to 24 lives that single fire claimed, by some estimates as much as 11 percent of homes in Santa Rosa were lost in the firestorm. 

“I never would have thought that our 140-person department would face something like this, but it did,” said Santa Rosa Firefighters Local 1401 President Tim Aboudara.

 The North Bay Firestorm exposed the vast expansion of the fire risk facing all California residents – not just those in the wildlands. Three out of four incorporated cities in California have at least some territory listed by CAL FIRE as being at “High” or “Very High” fire risk. In Santa Rosa, 15 percent of land within the city limits faced high or very high risk. In San Diego, that number is 43 percent.

The fires were also another reminder of the broader fire problem facing California, linked to punishing drought, climate change and relentless development in wildland areas. 

Mutual aid: A system in crisis

Even as the fire risk expands, fewer fire resources are available to meet the threat. According to Cal-OES, fewer than half of the local and state mutual aid engines requested in the early hours of the North Bay Fires could be deployed. Ten years ago, Cal-OES had upwards of 1,150 local mutual aid engines available for response. This year, only about half that many are available.

“It’s a challenge now, every day, to move the resources where they need to be and get them to people in the time that people need them,” said Kim Zagaris, Cal-OES fire and rescue chief.

While local resources ebb, the reliance on local agencies to support the mutual aid system is increasing. With CAL FIRE resources similarly stretched to their limits by the ever-widening fire problem, local agencies wind up shouldering a larger and larger percentage of response in the wildland-urban interface. At the height of the Detwiler Fire, which charred over 80,000 acres near Yosemite, nearly three-quarters of all firefighters on the lines were from local agencies, either staffing their own department’s rig or as part of an OES strike team.

“Whether it’s fire or flood or whatever natural disaster happens, you’ve got to have local agencies willing to give up resources,” said Paulson. “But with departments still downsized because of the recession, the resources aren’t there to deploy or backfill those deployments to protect local citizens.”


Familiar risks and deadly new threats

Firefighter/Paramedic J.C. Monticone of South Pasadena Firefighters Local 3657 was one of dozens of off-duty California firefighters and police officers saving lives while dodging a deadly sniper at the Route 91 Harvest festival concert shooting in Las Vegas this past October. For his fiancée, who was also attending the show, the circumstances were frighteningly familiar: Less than two years earlier, she had been working in San Bernardino’s Inland Regional Center when it was targeted in a terrorist mass shooting and attempted bombing.

In the past, firefighters were kept a safe distance from the line of fire in mass shooting incidents. Since 9/11, however, the number and severity of mass casualty events has changed how the fire service responds. No longer held at the perimeter, firefighters are now tasked to enter the scene to render aid even as law enforcement secures the scene. 

Active shooter response is just one of the ever-expanding set of responsibilities required of California’s firefighters. Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria tested the nation’s urban search and rescue capabilities, and California firefighters were in the thick of the response. 

“We had almost all of the USAR task forces in California out of state,” said Zagaris. “When they came back, some of the personnel had to turn around and head up to the fires.”

Meeting the challenge of the new fire service

The issues raised by this transformation of the California fire service go to the health and well-being of Californians and their first responders. Through CPF and its local affiliates, firefighters are working to force fire management and policy-makers to confront the threat head on:

  • Resources: The re-authorization of California’s cap-and-trade law provided an opportunity to make critical investments in mutual aid and statewide fire response. With labor and management taking a united stand, CPF and CalChiefs helped secure funding for CAL FIRE and a boost to the mutual aid budget. “The funding for mutual aid is a good start, but more is needed,” Paulson noted.
  • Training: The California Firefighter Joint Apprenticeship Committee – co-sponsored by CPF and the California State Fire Marshal – has had its eyes on the future demands of the profession for decades. Cal-JAC’s groundbreaking Unified Response to Violent Incidents training program was studied and largely implemented ahead of the 2015 San Bernardino shooting. 
  • Health and Wellness: While the flames from 2017's devastating fire season may now be out, the effects of these incidents may be seen for years, or even decades, to come: Exposures to cancer-causing chemicals and biological toxins in flood and fire response may have lingering effects. CPF’s Personal Exposure Reporting system allows its members to document these hazards. Beyond the physical injuries are the emotional ones. Firefighter behavioral health expert Frank Leto says agencies and local unions will be dealing with the effects of the North Bay fires “until the last person on that incident retires.” Once again, a united fire service led by CPF is helping to point the way toward awareness, support and a commitment to treating injuries of the heart as seriously as those of the body.

“The men and women of our profession carry more responsibility and more risk than at any time in our memory,” said President Paulson. “Now, more than ever, the safety of every Californian depends on a well-equipped, well-trained committed fire service.”