Monday, April 12, 2010 | More than two years after the Santiago fire exposed the Orange County Fire Authority’s wildfire-fighting vulnerabilities there are still questions as to whether the authority is adequately prepared for another major blaze.

A report following the 2007 Santiago fire, which ravaged more than 28,000 acres and destroyed 14 homes, said the fire authority was short on wildland fire engines, hand crews, bulldozers as well as pilots and helicopters.

Since that report, the fire authority has improved its readiness in several ways, said OCFA spokesperson Chris Concepcion. Among the improvements:

  • A renegotiated mutual aid agreement with neighboring agencies so 25 additional engines can be made available if needed. The previous agreement limited that number to five fire engines – any more had to go through the state’s mutual-aid coordinator.
  • Five additional wildland firefighting engines, which raised the total number from eight to 13 fire engines, Concepcion said.
  • An addition of 10 urban fire engines to its surge force.

Previously, Concepcion acknowledged, the fire authority lacked a clear plan for staffing the surge force engines and getting them into the field quickly. As a result, some surge force fire engines sat idle at their stations for up to 24 hours while the Santiago fire raged. Now there is a “definitive plan” for deployment, he said.

“It’s hard to speculate,” Concepcion said. “But I think we can safely say that we are more ready because of the lessons learned (from the Santiago fire.)”

Yet shortages remain. And there is confusion — even within the organization — as to how many engines and fire crews the agency actually has at its disposal.

For example, Concepcion said recently that the fire authority now has a surge force of 50 fire engines. But OCFA Assistant Fire Chief Jorge Camargo puts the actual number at 35, and said only ten of those are ready to deploy at any given time.

And Joe Kerr, president of the OCFA firefighters union, said the fire authority is overstating the strength of the surge force. “The Fire Chief (Keith Richter) hopefully is aware what the surge capacity is versus what he says publicly,” Kerr said.

Another key firefighting component highlighted in the after-action report is air resources. Although the fire authority replaced its two old helicopters with new Hueys, no additional pilots have been hired, and the helicopters remain grounded at night because the fire authority has yet to hammer out a comprehensive helicopter program agreement.

Then there is the issue of the age of the fire authority’s fleet. Concepcion says the average age of its engines is 15-years-old. That makes them about half as effective as a new engine, according to Don Howard, chief of the fire department in Summit, Arizona.

New engines are not only more reliable, but have far better technology, he said. This is especially true when it comes to injecting foam into its fire hoses, which makes the water coming from them significantly more effective at putting out fires, he said.

“If you have 500 gallons, it makes it seem like you have 1,500 gallons,” Howard said.

Concepcion said the Fire Authority has a thorough maintenance program that ensures that the chances of the old engines breaking down are low.

But an audit the union released last month showed that the fire authority has a $41 million surplus in its vehicle replacement fund.

All told, the audit found a surplus of $100 million, including a $17 million surplus in the fire authorities workers’ comp fund. Also, the fire authority’s communications and information systems fund went from $14 million to $20 million.

The union cited these surpluses as examples of the fire authority putting extreme fiscal prudence ahead of public safety.

Concepcion said the opposite was true — surpluses protect against the fire authority running out of money over the next several years, a period when expenses will climb while revenues are almost sure to be stagnant.

“We anticipate our reserve funds shrinking to a dangerous level,” Concepcion said.

Richard Carson, an environmental economist at the University of California, San Diego, said the dilemma Concepcion describes is real and one that fire departments nationwide are grappling with.

The thinking, Carson said, is that spending a lot of money on a mega force more capable of handling a major fire disaster sounds fiscally backwards when events like the Santiago Fire occur one year out of ten.

Fire agencies would rather bet that fire just doesn’t happen.

“Is it a good gamble?” Carson said. “Probably not.”

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