Napa & Sonoma Requests Left Unanswered During Wildfires

From classrooms full of kindergartners to government buildings housing the world’s most prominent officials, emergency exercises are faithfully drilled so that individuals know what to do in a crisis situation. This is no different for the emergency teams residing in the state of California. Activities and communications are practiced over and over again so that when disaster strikes, rescue teams will be more than prepared to spring into action. However, when the October wildfires struck the Wine Country hillsides, only a portion of the requested assistance came to help the local firefighters fight the blaze.

Less Than Half of the Requested Engines Traveled to Wine Country in the First 12 Hours

When a community goes into crisis mode, the officials of that community always have a plan of action. In the Wine Country area, it is the Sonoma and Napa Valley Emergency Chiefs who put that plan into motion. When wildfires hit Northern California (as they often do), the emergency chiefs must decide on next steps—the next decision that could impact thousands of lives. When they saw the ferocity of the Northern California wildfires, they pulled out all the stops and called on the California mutual-aid system. But, to their disappointment and the detriment of thousands of California residents, the statewide call for help went mostly unanswered.

The California mutual-aid system is an emergency response task group that was created for the purpose of fighting major crises. The idea that led to the system’s creation is that the disaster situations that California is known for (earthquakes and fires) require immediate and quick response from emergency services. With fire disasters, manpower and efficiency are essential components of limiting the amount of destruction caused by the crisis. Having more firefighters on the scene within the first few hours can stop an exponential spread of ruin. Every county in California has designated fire trucks and emergency teams that are supposed to answer crises calls from surrounding California counties. Within the first 6 hours of the October fires sparking, over 170 mutual-aid engines were requested to join in on the fight against the NorCal blaze. Sadly, only 95 engines were actually sent to the Wine Country emergencies.

Why Did So Few Fire Engines Answer the Call?

There are a couple of reasons why so few of the emergency engines were sent to Napa and Sonoma Valleys. One of the contributing factors was the amount of fires breaking out across all of California. While Wine Country faced the worst of the October fires, other infernos sparked in various counties across the state. This divided the total number of mutual-aid system engines available for use.

The other main issue was the lack of resources available to California emergency services. Budget cuts have withered the number of readily-available firefighters and fire engines, meaning that emergency services are short-staffed and in short-supply. Some of the facts that validate this issue include:

  • In 2007, 1,150 fire engines were available for use by the Office of Emergency Services. In the peak of the October fires, barely half of that amount was deployed.
  • In 2012, 134 requests for fire engines or water tenders went unfulfilled. In 2016, there were 3,029 unfulfilled requests for fire engines and water tenders. A 2,260% increase in 4 years.
  • Fire chiefs said they wanted to send help, but did not have the resources to do so.

When chief officers claim that there is an issue, there is little doubt that something needs to change. If all 170 requested engines were able to come to the Wine Country area, there is no doubt that the destruction that the Napa and Sonoma Valleys faced would be much smaller. Hopefully this tragedy is a wakeup call for authorities who grant funding for the California Office of Emergency Services.

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