The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors this week discussed numerous solutions to address the increased threat of wildfires, including the creation of a Wildland Fire Program to coordinate fire preparedness countywide.
Santa Clara County has 554,200 acres of unincorporated wildland areas, less than 1 percent of which has been subject to trimming and other fire safety efforts by Cal Fire.
Increasing temperatures and climate forecasts in the Bay Area indicate that wildfires are a growing threat, according to the Santa Clara County Fire Department 2019 report.
This is evident by the SCU Lightning Complex fires that started in mid-August and has grown to be the second largest wildfire in California history, Board of Supervisors President Cindy Chavez said.
The report comes from Chavez’s efforts since late 2018 to find new solutions within the county’s fire department. In June 2019, the Santa Clara County Fire Department came back with a report outlining where the county lacks resources, and with a proposal for the Wildland Fire Program to address those shortages.
“We want to make sure the county’s fire department has enough resources today and in the long run to fight wildfires and to suppress them,” Chavez said. “The second thing we are taking a look at is how independent fire districts work today and how could they work better, if in fact we look at consolidation.”
Consolidation of independent fire districts will happen in early October, but on Tuesday, the board focused on the proposed Wildland Fire Program.
Three areas of focus
The Wildland Fire Program would operate as part of the county Fire Marshal’s office, and would focus on three main components — technology, response and risk reduction.
Technology purchased would be used for faster wildfire detection in remote areas and for rapid alert and warning systems.
The county fire department pointed to GIS-based computer simulators as a possible solution, as they would help better understand fire spread and behavior under different weather and fuel conditions.
Advanced cameras could also be purchased, which would help fire departments to detect wildland fires in more remote and unpopulated areas more rapidly. Currently, there are 70 cameras installed statewide, 10 of which are in Santa Clara County.
The county fire department also recommended making significant changes to technology and personnel at the 9-1-1 communications center and to provide staff specifically to coordinate Alert & Warning efforts so that all county residents receive prompt notifications during emergencies.
Response efforts include building greater regional capacity for specialized resources.
Currently, the county has seven water tenders but no bulldozers, helicopters or hand crews. That means in the event of a wildfire, the county would turn to Cal Fire resources, which if available usually takes hours to deploy, according to the Santa Clara County Fire Department.
However, Cal Fire’s Santa Clara Unit only has three bulldozers, one of which is located in the county, and one helicopter. It does not have any water tenders or hand crews. These resources are also directed by the state, so they could be used in other fires and may not even be available to the county.
“The resources available for mutual aid are really stretched … in part because we have wildfires happening across the state at a time, so we (are) going to be unable to move equipment quickly,” Chavez said. “Also, cities and counties are going to be more careful about lending equipment because they were worried about protecting their own communities.”
In fact, there are 50 percent fewer local government resources available through the mutual aid system today than there were 15 years ago, according to the county fire department.
Need for improved wildfire response
In its 2019 report, the county’s fire department also emphasized the need to increase response capabilities, especially as Santa Clara County weather forecasts grow more similar to those of Southern California.
“When compared to Southern California counties with more fire history, Santa Clara County has fewer of those response resources available nearby, particularity when viewed in the context of wildland acreage to protect,” the report reads.
Chavez said the lack of resources is, in part, a budgetary issue, and also because of the unprecedented number of fires in the Bay Area and across the state.
“We are in the middle of the second-largest fire in our history while we have multiple regions of the state on fire, so one is we have more fires,” Chavez said. “But two is … that our firefighters have done such a good job of living within their means that in some ways … we didn’t see the urgency as much as we should have. I think that is particularly true as it relates to appointments and staffing.”
Risk Reduction emphasizes acting proactively and taking care of fuels (plants, dry grass, trees) before a wildfire burns without control.
“In order for us to really start to fight these fires, suppression was going to have to be a part of our body of work. We couldn’t just rely on our ability to fight fires,” Chavez said.
“Frankly, the old way we have been doing suppression wouldn’t be enough, and that’s been the case.”
The proposed plan looks at using pre- and post-emergent herbicides that could curtail the growth of readily ignitable plants in high-risk areas.
It also suggests buying a Type VI fire engine ($150,000) for wildland fire suppression and prevention projects, purchasing a tractor masticator ($75,000) to establish and maintain fuel breaks and identify additional labor sources to complete fire risk reduction projects.
Historically, Cal Fire hand crews have been used to assist with fire reduction projects. But with increased fires statewide, the resources are not as readily available. The Santa Clara County Fire Department suggested hiring a hand crew of 12 seasonal employees to conduct fuel reduction efforts countywide.
The purchasing of tools and hiring of a hand crew could also allow the county to “take a leadership role” and address the hazardous fuels on the 630 miles of unincorporated roads in high-risk fire areas in the county, according to the county’s fire department.
Funding source uncertain
Funding the aforementioned recommendations would require a recurring fee from the general fund of $1,211,511 and $437,500 once, according to the county’s fire department.
However, Chavez said it is unclear where funding will come from and was a major point of discussion during Tuesday’s meeting.
“The initial report had an approximately $10 million price tag to them. What I don’t know is what would change now for County Fire as they are looking around and seeing what the impacts of these fires have already been,” Chavez said.
A 2019 report from the Deputy County Executive Garry Herceg also outlined different possible funding sources than the general fund, including state funding and state grants.
Chavez also noted that the climate and weather changes are national, so the federal government would need to “step up” to make funds available in the future.