By Reggie Ellis @Reggie_SGN
VISALIA – The devastation to life and property of wildfires is well documented in California’s history. Fires in the last three to five years have been some of the most deadly, killing hundreds of people, melting thousands of homes and wiping entire cities from the landscape.
It might seem callous at the time, but what is rarely talked about is the cost of providing hundreds of firefighters from all over the state to respond to these fires. City fire departments play a major role in sending trained firefighters to help hold the line against towering flames fueled by thousands of acres of timber. At a recent meeting, Battalion Chief Danny Wristen with the Visalia Fire Department described the process of sending strike teams of Visalia firefighters to wildland fires up and down the state.
In a Dec. 17 report to the Visalia City Council, Chief Wristen described the State of California’s Fire Mutual Aid Systems as “one of the most efficient and effective in the nation.” The Visalia Fire Department (VFD) has participated in the Statewide Mutual Aid System since 1990. Over the last five years, the fire department has participated in 50 deployments throughout the state.
The most expansive rule for cooperative fire protection in the state is the California Fire Assistance Agreement (CFAA) between California’s Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES), representing local government, and the forest agencies (Cal Fire, Forest Service, BLM, Fish and Wildlife, National Park Service). This is the most commonly used agreement for wildland fires and provides 100% reimbursement for personnel, equipment, including a surcharge for administrative and vehicle support.
VFD has one of 150 Cal OES fire engines to support wildfires throughout the state. Each engine is required to have a fire captain to act as crew leader on a wildland fire strike team, which is made up of five engines from several departments. Strike team deployment numbers depend on VFD’s staffing at the time of the call. At full staffing, VFD is capable of sending 12 firefighters, including two, four-person engine companies and four chiefs. Wristen said the department has rarely sent 12 at a time, and usually provide a minimum deployment of three or for firefighters along with the Cal OES engine.
Through the CFAA, Visalia is reimbursed “Portal to Portal” which means all personnel expenses are reimbursed from the time staff leaves the Visalia station until staff returns back to the station. This includes all overtime expenses, including backfill overtime for those who are covering shift at home. About the only expenses it doesn’t cover are refueling any non-Cal OES engine and meals en route to the fire and on the return trip home.
On Sept. 3, 2017, the fire department responded to the Railroad Fire in the Sierra National Forest. The department sent one engine staffed with three fire personnel for a total of 187.5 hours. For this incident the City incurred $33,405.88 in costs for personnel, including both overtime for the assigned personnel and backfill overtime for coverage, and the use of one fire engine. The state reimbursed the City a total of $46,206.79, for a net gain of $12,516.52 for the city. The excess reimbursement comes from surcharges for administrative and vehicle support. Reimbursements from the state can take up to a maximum of 210 days.
On June 24, 2018, the department responded to the Pawnee Fire in Lake County. The department sent one Battalion Chief and an SUV for a total of 265.75 hours. For this incident the City was reimbursed $1,227.54 over its costs. On July 1, 2018, the department responded to the County Fire in Yolo and Napa counties. The department sent the Cal OES Engine staffed with four fire personnel for a total of 117 hours. For this incident the City was reimbursed $1,031.44 over its costs.
“This extra revenue helps to offset the cost of engine oil changes, tires, fuel, and wear and tear on turnouts and gear,” Chief Wristen said. “On very few occasions will there be a negative impact to the General Fund.”
Ultimately council members asked the question, if the reimbursements are a wash, the workforce is stretched, and there is wear and tear on the equipment, then why do it? There are two reasons. Wristen said the first is the opportunity for on-the-job training.
“The opportunity we have on these fires Is like no other training,” Wristen said. “We bring all of that knowledge and experience back to Visalia with us.”
Councilmember Phil Cox provided the second reason.
“I know this can cost us money but it is a good cost,” Cox said. “Someday we might be the ones putting out a call for help.”
Wristen described the devastating wildfires of the last three years as the “new normal” and said more than 600 requests for strike teams went unfilled between late July and early August alone. Councilmember Greg Collins asked if fire chiefs have met statewide to have a serious conversation about land use issues after the horrific images from Paradise, Calif., an entire town of 26,000 people displaced by the Camp Fire. California’s deadliest fire and nation’s deadliest fire in more than a century, the Camp Fire destroyed nearly 14,000 homes, killed 88 people and nearly 200 more are still missing, as of press time.
VFD Fire Chief Doug McBee said the outgoing Cal Fire Chief Ken Pimlott called for change to state and local ordinances allowing for large-scale communities to be built in the path of wildfires. McBee said local fire agencies received a blessing when the J.G. Boswell Co. pulled the plug on its Yokohl Ranch subdivision a little less than a year ago. If completed, Yokohl Ranch would have built more than 10,000 homes in the foothills between Exeter and Springville, making it the county’s fourth largest city with an estimated population of 30,000 with more than 60 percent of the 36,000-acre Boston Ranch remaining cattle grazing land.
“We were really glad to see Yokohl Valley project go away,” Chief McBee said.
Councilmember Brian Poochigian said he wanted to know if firefighters on the strike teams were receiving enough rest following their deployments to wildfires. An average deployment is 5 to 7 days, with a normal maximum of 14 working days. Chief Wristen explained that the firefighters do not work 24/7 while on wildland fires. Instead, they work a 24-hour shift, with breaks, and are then off for 24 hours before returning to fire lines. He also pointed out that firefighters typically no longer slept in tents in the heat of summer, and instead are provided hotel rooms or sleep in temporary structures that are air conditioned.
Additionally, VFD also responds to requests for local strike teams on major structure fires, such as the Harvest Container Fire in Lindsay in 2005 or the Phillips Farms packinghouse fire in Ivanhoe in 2014. Under the California Master Mutual Aid Agreement (CMMAA) of 1950, the State of California and all the political subdivisions to provide assistance to each other during times of emergency or disaster. Wristen described this as a “neighbor helping neighbor” policy between every fire agency in Tulare County, with the exception of Lindsay, which does not send strike teams out of its jurisdiction, because it does not include a reimbursement for personnel or equipment.