May 27, 2016 - From the May, 2016 issue

Orange County Fire Chief Opines on a Fire Season Aggravated by Drought

California has suffered at least 700 wildfires since the beginning of 2016, and that number is only expected to rise this summer. As drought conditions exacerbate and lengthen the region’s fire season—killing as many as 29 million trees—TPR turns to Orange County Fire Chief Jeff Bowman for insight into the pressures facing California’s urban fire departments, and the steps they are taking to meet the challenge of increasingly large fires. Bowman emphasizes that agencies must learn from past lessons.


Chief Jeff Bowman

“The hardest job for us in Orange County is to make sure that these day-to-day needs are met, all the while keeping in mind the need to be prepared to quickly respond to these wildfires.” —Chief Jeff Bowman

California’s fire season seems every year to begin earlier and last longer. Share with our readers your responsibilities as County Fire Chief and how you are grappling with prolonged drought and the fire challenges of Orange County.

Jeff Bowman: Most people in California have certainly heard about the impact of the drought here. But people are not nearly aware of the depths of the problem of tree deaths.There are millions of trees in California that have died due to the impacts of the drought. 

Many have been directly impacted by various pest infestations. These pests are able to penetrate the large stands of forest areas because the sap inside the trees, which historically has kept them out, has dried up due to drought conditions. They are boring their way into the depths of the tree itself, and killing the tree from the inside out. Currently there’s no way to control that.

The bottom line is that extended periods of heat—plus California’s infamous wind conditions—equate these dead trees to standing matches waiting for an ignition source. We have experienced large, very difficult-to-control wildfires. We were supposed to have a decent El Niño this year, and unfortunately in Southern California that didn’t happen. So here we are, in year five of the drought. 

The other side effect of the drought is that the native growth that takes over land that’s been burned out presents a high fire danger. As the grassy material dries out and dies off, it becomes a very rapid-burning material. If—or when—we have fires this season, this material will ignite and spread very quickly from areas of former burn to areas that did not burn. The drought just continues to create fuels of different types.

You assumed the position of Orange County Chief in 2014. Previously, you led San Diego’s Fire Department. Orange County, in comparison, has quite a good reputation for managing its challenges. Address, given the drought and impacts of climate change, whether the State and Orange County have dedicated the resources to manage this year’s fire challenges and going forward?

Resource availability for any fire agency is typically based upon what happens on a day-to-day basis—not what happens during these large wildfires. There is no agency on the face of the planet that can staff appropriately to manage these big fires. That’s why decades ago, the State of California created the Mutual Aid System, which allows resources in areas that are not experiencing high fire problems to respond to areas where there is a greater need.

Orange County is very well positioned for the day-to-day problems, whereas some other counties are not. If it happens in Orange County, we’re able to put a relatively effective force on the fire as quickly as we possibly can in an attempt to keep it small. When erratic winds are added into vegetative material on the various terrains throughout California, crews must attack those fires extremely quickly, or they will burn out of control and beyond the capability or the means of any local agency.

Orange County is better positioned than most, but nobody’s able to staff accordingly to fight these big fires when they occur. Part of the reason I went to Orange County was to do a review of their operational policies and procedures. We’ve made a significant shift over the last 18 months as to how services are delivered in Orange County.

That shift involves putting more paramedics on first-line units, so that we have fewer units going to calls, and more effective personnel on those units—in other words, more paramedics helping the public on a first-come, first-served basis. 

Part of the current change was taking paramedics off of ambulance-style vehicles, because we did not in fact transport, and putting them on fire trucks. But we’ve kept the unstaffed ambulances in their stations, and in the event that we get into red-flag or high wildland fire periods, we have a plan in place to put those firefighter paramedics back on the ambulances so they can be maintained for first responses in Orange County.

About 80 percent of most fire service agencies’ calls are for medical aid. The principal responsibility of any fire chief is to plan for the most likely scenarios. The most likely need for our services should be to have those managed effectively. That being said, living in California, we also have to be ready for wildfires.

The hardest job for us in Orange County is to make sure that these day-to-day needs are met, all the while keeping in mind the need to be prepared to quickly respond to wildfires.  In my opinion, probably the biggest challenge  for an urban fire chief (who has exposure to wildland interface fire potential) is to balance resource needs effectively.

Regarding California’s Mutual Aid agreements, Los Angeles County has invested heavily for decades in fire protection, but San Diego County and City do not have a like record. As Chief of the Orange County Fire Department, with serious local responsibilities for fire protection, how do you compare and contrast your neighbor’s ability to meet their Mutual Aid responsibilities?

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It’s always an interesting question and a dilemma when it occurs.  The bottom line is: The word “mutual” would suggest that what one gives, one is likely to receive in an emergency. Even though San Diego has not, in my opinion, taken the fire problem as seriously as others, they have been willing to give resources freely. We tackle each individual problem as it occurs. If Orange County has the resources available to send to any county in need, we send them. Last season, however, when all of the fire activity was predominantly in the northern end of the state, most Southern California departments had units up there almost nonstop. But even with all of the units we sent, nearly 6,000 requests made by the State of California under the Mutual Aid program were unable to be filled—just due to the volume and lack of local resources to send. The fact is that you cannot completely strip any region of its resources to send them where the fires are burning.  If a fire were to erupt locally, there’d be a great deal of scrutiny about why we didn’t maintain enough of a force to handle our local emergencies. 

Governor Brown has created a Climate Task Force to assess climate impacts on fire. It’s pretty young in its existence, but the intent is to try to establish some go-forward strategies to deal with climate change and its impacts on the state’s burnable areas.

One of my goals on this Task Force is to push the resurrection of the attention to the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Fire Commission findings back in 2004, and try to get the current governor and legislators to understand that the risk hasn’t lessened by any means—in fact, it’s gotten worse—and these Blue Ribbon recommendations were put in place for a reason.  Yet, like a lot of studies, great work is performed, and then they end up on a shelf somewhere. In my opinion, they should never die. Once they’re completed, they should be reviewed at least every other year to ensure that they are effective and achieving their desired intent. 

Could you elaborate on some of the findings and recommendations of the 2004 Blue Ribbon Fire Commission that you’d like more attention paid to by Governor Brown and the Public?

My recommendation to the Task Force was to pick at least five of the recommendations that were still, in my opinion, in need of immediate attention. A small group of fire chiefs gathered and we prioritized seven different items from the list. The number one issue from most of the fire chiefs was the fact that the Blue Ribbon Commission had identified the number of bodies on a fire apparatus that’s ideal for managing a wildfire: four firefighters per unit. Yet, daily staffing on most agencies in California is three.

What typically happens is: When a request goes out for Mutual Aid, if the department that’s sending the unit is daily staffed with three, then that’s what they’re reimbursed for by the state or federal government when it comes time to reimburse them. Yet we know from the Commission findings that four is ideal. Ultimately, if people need help and properties are in jeopardy—why would we not send four people and then expect to be reimbursed for all four? It becomes a function of who’s paying. When houses are burning and people are in jeopardy, nobody’s afraid to pay.  

Small fire districts with small budgets need to know that if they send their units, they will not be held hostage when it comes time to be reimbursed. It is a rapid budget breaker for the smaller agencies. A big agency like OC or LA can carry the balance over a much longer period of time—still with the expectation of being reimbursed. This is the number one issue as identified by the fire chiefs. We hope to resolve it at the next Task Force meeting.

Those are ambitious goals, and perhaps given the fire threat this year, realizable. They of course were not realizable in San Diego, even after two major, catastrophic fires. What are the political conditions that have to be present to entice people to act prospectively?

Unfortunately, humans have fairly short memories for these disasters. I was the chief in the City of San Diego in 2003 when the Cedar Fire blew threw that county. It was largest wildfire in California history. They had been told in advance of that fire that the potential was there, and ignored the warnings. After the fire blew through, there was a lot of talk about revisiting the problem. Six months after the fires came through, the only ones who wanted it as a priority were those who lost property, homes, or lives. One would think that, when you’ve suffered the largest wildfire in California history, that the focus would be on what we can do to change preparedness for that. Yet there was a great deal of reluctance to change codes and spend money to fix problems. It played a large role in my leaving San Diego, because I felt that they didn’t want to address the problem. And a year after I left, the 2007 firestorms hit and virtually duplicated what happened in 2003. As we stand in 2016, some strides have been made, but they’re not even close to having dealt with a large part of the identified problems. 

What lessons, Chief, should a sophisticated county fire department like yours take, if any, from the current Fort McMurray fire in Canada?

It’s a completely different problem there than it is here. That is a forest fire that exploded through a city that was in its way. The most important issue is to realize that wildfires occur in every part of the United States. They have the potential to duplicate what did occur up in Canada.  The takeaway for every region and every fire service agency should be: Don’t think it’s not going to happen here, because it could. These northern areas have significantly drier conditions and less rainfall this year in springtime than they normally would have because of El Niño. The takeaway is: Be ready and have a plan. If you’re a local agency, make sure that that plan includes how to get humans out of the way of those monstrous fires that literally roar through communities with little notice.

Lastly, if we again speak in a year’s time, will your county and the State have advanced in terms of fire preparedness and the safety of our urban communities in Southern California?

We will have raised the seven Blue Ribbon Fire Commission items to the political level again, so that our elected officials are aware that these still need work. My hope is that we’ll reach some kind of agreement on how to tackle these seven. Not to say that the problems haven’t started to be addressed, but they’re certainly far from being complete. 

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© 2019 The Planning Report | David Abel, Publisher, ABL, Inc.