For nearly 70 years, California fire departments have fought blazes statewide through a codified system of neighbor helping neighbor.
But as catastrophic windblown wildfires strike with more frequency, California’s system of mutual aid is under stress, with fire chiefs sometimes reluctant to assist their counterparts or unaware help is needed because of outdated communications.
Chiefs of the state’s biggest fire departments say the connective tissue of mutual aid has become weakened in the last 20 years. The days of sending every available resource to help put out a neighbor’s fire without question has been replaced with hesitation — should some be held back to save money, or in case another fire erupts nearby?
“In 2003 in San Diego, I was a battalion chief, the way we supported mutual aid was, if you asked, we sent,” said Brian Fennessy, now chief of the Orange County Fire Authority. “We didn’t talk about drawing down [resources]. How far should we allow ourselves to be drawn down? That wasn’t even a conversation.”
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