The Press Democrat: Proposed FEMA reforms informed by wildfire recovery issues exposed after 2017 North Bay fires

By Mary Callahan

After the Fountaingrove fire station burned down in the 2017 Tubbs fire, the city of Santa Rosa tried hard to persuade the Federal Emergency Management Agency that it wasn’t smart to rebuild it in a place with a high chance of going up in flames again.

The old station had been atop a peak at the convergence of several wind chutes that could drive sparks and flames toward it. It made more sense, both fiscally and in terms of safety, to rebuild in a more protected site, Santa Rosa Fire Chief Scott Westrope explained.

But FEMA’s guidelines were created for hurricanes, floods and tornadoes, and what made sense for those disasters didn’t make sense for wildfires.

FEMA was willing to help rebuild the firehouse at its old Newgate Court address, but the only way to relocate it was if it had been in a flood zone, Westrope said.

“FEMA essentially could not get around its own rules,” he said.

All that may be about to change.

Federal legislation working its way through the U.S. Senate would reform FEMA rules to better allow for wildfire preparedness and recovery.

Many of the changes addressed in the legislation were based on lessons learned from the 2017 North Bay Firestorm and wildfires in the region since.

Authored by California Democratic U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla, the FEMA Improvement, Reform, and Efficiency (FIRE) Act was developed in part from conversations last year with local and state officials who have been grappling with issues like the firehouse relocation.

“‘While FEMA’s been around for a long time, for far too long it’s been geared toward helping with the response to hurricanes, tornadoes and to floods,” Padilla said in an interview with The Press Democrat last week.

“But a lot of the criteria, a lot of the guidelines, are not as suited for wildfires,” he said. “And you couple that with experiencing wildfires with increasing frequency and increasing severity, it’s been time for FEMA to catch up.”

The bill passed out of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week with unanimous, bipartisan support. It would amend the 1988 Stafford Act, which provides the legal authority under which the federal government provides disaster assistance to the states.

The legislation addresses a wide range of issues, such as the lack of affordable fire insurance in many areas of the West. It would also examine the possibility of federal wildfire insurance modeled after the National Flood Insurance Program.

Other areas the legislation would address include:

  • Improving the speed with which emergency housing can be provided;
  • Examining the speed with which federal disaster aid is delivered overall;
  • Allowing FEMA funds to be used to preposition state and local fire resources when conditions are ripe for wildfires — similar to when hurricanes are predicted to make landfall.

Sonoma County Fire District Chief Mark Heine said strike teams are already positioned strategically when dry, windy conditions exist so “they can jump on a fire early and contain it before it gets big.”

Additional assistance from FEMA, such as aircraft and hand crew support, would only enhance the effort, he said.

“To me,” said Padilla, “that’s a no brainer, but it has not been reflected in the federal statutes.”

Further provisions in the bill touch on the need for culturally competent crisis counseling and case management, as well as respectful care practices for those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds who have experienced trauma.

These portions were based on input Padilla received during a Santa Rosa roundtable meeting that included tribal representation, his office said.

The bill also addresses the need for tribal government access to FEMA funding for upgrades to tribal emergency operations centers.

As for the Fountaingrove fire station, funds eventually were found elsewhere to construct a new Fire Station 5. It’s more than a mile downhill at Fountaingrove Parkway and Stagecoach Road. It’s estimated to come in around $23 million.

But city officials first had to put together analyses demonstrating why the original location was ill-suited for a rebuild and likely to pave the way for repetitive damage.

During the appeal process, they even were asked to prove that relocation would take it out of the flood plain, which was difficult since they had deliberately selected a lower elevation so it could be better defended.

“After several appeals,” Westrope said, “it was finally denied.”

Local officials have been working since the landmark 2017 fires to reach out to communities with similar issues and have continuously pushed state and federal officials to try to “go back and fix a very old law,” Westrope said.

Brian Ferguson, deputy director for crisis communications at Cal OES, said it made sense to listen to the people who’ve had the most experience with wildfires.

“California is a laboratory for this because we have so many disasters here,” he said. “We’re very optimistic that the public and our elected leaders will understand that and take action, because we’re only going to see more severe disasters in the future as our planet evolves and our climate warms.”

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