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Wildfires force new look at fire department budget

City News Service | 12/7/2018, midnight

The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors voted this week to begin a yearlong, $4.5 million public outreach project to assess the needs of the fire department and ensure residents understand the financial challenges posed by increasingly severe wildfires.

Supervisor Janice Hahn said it was time to rethink the county’s firefighting resources.

Calling the nearly 97,000-acre Woolsey Fire “the worst L.A. County has ever seen,’’ Hahn told her colleagues, “This new normal has compelled me to ask whether our firefighters have what they need.’’

Hahn’s motion highlighted the need to replace old fire engines—some of which date back more than 20 years—buy more helicopters and replace outdated communication systems.

The cost to repair or replace aging fire stations, some more than 50 years old, will total nearly $750 million, according to a report by the CEO’s office earlier this year. The department also needs more paramedics, firefighters and civilian staffers to reduce strain on the force, Hahn said.

In July, Fire Chief Daryl Osby reported that his department had more than $1.4 billion in critical infrastructure needs and urged the board to pursue funding through a 2020 ballot measure.

A consultant had been hired a month earlier to gauge support for such a ballot measure. Preliminary results of polling from that time indicated that 87 percent of voters thought the fire department was doing an excellent or good job, were aware of the increasing severity of wildfires and felt it was important for firefighters to have the right resources.

Hahn didn’t mention the polling or suggest any particular sources of new funding for the department, which has a budget of roughly $1.2 billion. As a special district, it is paid for primarily through property taxes and a special tax approved by voters in 1997.

Hahn and Osby both said the department is known for “doing more with less’’ and has long faced challenges around staffing and budget.

But since he joined as chief in 2011, the department has grown from being the seventh busiest to the fourth busiest fire department in the country behind New York, Chicago and the city of Los Angeles, according to Osby.

Supervisor Kathryn Barger, who co-authored the motion, said intense fire danger statewide means the department can longer rely on resources from elsewhere.

“We are on our own,’’ Barger said. “When we talk to families who have lost their homes, we need to be able to look them in the eye.’’

The outreach campaign is aimed at gathering input about residents’ experiences in recent fires as well as with day-to-day paramedic emergencies – which make up more than 80 percent of the calls handled by the fire department. It will also be geared toward educating residents and local community leaders about the department’s financial realities.

Supervisor Sheila Kuehl urged staffers to also reach out to residents affected by county fires from years ago. She said residents who lived through earlier Malibu fires told her they were surprised and disappointed not to see firefighters on their street.

“We are facing something so much larger,’’ Kuehl said, noting that earlier fires were often concentrated in one area, allowing firefighters to fan out on what seemed like every street. By contrast, the Woolsey Fire raced from the Ventura (101) Freeway to the beach in a band of flames that spanned 14 miles at one point.

An interim report on the outreach campaign is expected in six months, with a final update at the end of the 12-month project.

Kuehl’s office has arranged two town hall meetings for residents affected by the Woolsey Fire:

—Dec. 13 from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at King Gillette Ranch, 26800 Mulholland Highway, Calabasas; and

—Dec. 16 from 1 to 3 p.m. at Pepperdine University, 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu.