As the Thomas Fire charged 14 miles in its first night, local officials hit the phones.
Those in Ventura County Fire Department knew almost immediately that they needed help from outside the county after the blaze broke out during Santa Ana winds Dec. 4.
They didn’t know whether they could stop the fire. But they needed to pull tens of thousands of people out of the way, keep escape routes clear and protect what they could as flames swept from Santa Paula to Ventura.
Firefighters tried to fight the Thomas Fire at De La Garrigue Road and Highway 150 near Ojai on Saturday, but the flames grew too big so they had to run. The blaze continued to burn strongly in that area on Saturday.
“We called all of our friends on our cellphones and said, ‘We are in dire straits and we need help,’” said Dustin Gardner, an assistant chief with the Ventura County Fire Department. “‘We need you send us everything you can.’”
That’s not how it is supposed to work.
There’s a process, a computerized ordering program that is part of the state’s mutual aid system. Departments fill out orders to ask for additional resources and regional centers fill those requests.
But some say it hasn’t kept pace with the latest technology and needs upgrades.
It works, but it has limitations, said Gardner, who called for 70 strike teams, 350 engines, to respond in the first couple of hours of the Thomas Fire.
“It takes time,” he said. “That night, it took too much time.”
So local fire officials also reached out to other departments themselves.
“We bypass the system,” said Ventura County Fire Chief Mark Lorenzen. “If we have a significant threat, we make direct requests to fire chiefs.”
The state started using the the federally owned Resource Ordering and Status System, or ROSS, in the 1990s and it worked well.
But it’s now 20-plus years old and needs to be modernized, said Kim Zagaris, state fire and rescue chief for California’s Office of Emergency Services. He’s involved in developing a new system, part of an effort with several groups, including the International Fire Chiefs Association.
It’s in beta testing now, Zagaris said.
The federal government allows ROSS to be used for free, but a new system likely will require funding. It’s unclear how much or how long it will take for the system to be ready to roll out.
Earlier this year, a group of fire chiefs and labor unions requested an additional $100 million from the Legislature to boost the mutual aid system. The proposal called for most of the money to pay for putting engines and other equipment in high-risk areas when extreme weather is expected.
About $13 million was proposed for technology and system upgrades, including to help replace ROSS, according to the groups. At this point, however, it doesn’t appear that all of that funding request will end up in the 2018-19 budget.
Either way, Zagaris said a new system is expected to continue to be developed and tested, steps that do not require state funding, he said.
In Ventura County on Dec. 4, the phone calls, in addition to ROSS orders, seemed to work, local officials said. Within hours, departments from north of Santa Barbara to southern Orange County arrived.
Lorenzen said he’ll tell his department to keep making calls until a better fix is found.
“We’ll pick up our cellphones again,” he said. “We’re not going to wait around for bureaucracy to catch up with us. We’ll keep working around it.”