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Fire chiefs from Ventura, Los Angeles, Orange Counties say 2022 brush fire potential still high

Lance Orozco
Fire chiefs in Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange Counties have been trying to improve early-response coordination during the first hours of brush fires to try to prevent them into growing into major blazes. Pictured is the November, 2018 Woolsey Fire which killed three people, and destroyed about 1500 structures in Ventura and Los Angeles Counties.

Despite mild start to high brush fire season, they say Santa Ana winds still a threat. Chiefs work to improve coordinated responses to major blazes.

Two giant firefighting helicopters are hovering over a special helipad in the Santa Monica Mountains. But, this time, it isn’t the real deal. It’s a demonstration for a unique partnership involving the Ventura, Los Angeles, and Orange County Fire Departments, which are getting the use of extra helicopters during high fire season thanks to Southern California Edison.

It’s huge for Ventura County. One of the Quick Reaction Force Helicopters is based at Camarillo Airport, and it’s equipped for night firefighting.

Ventura County Fire Chief Dustin Gardner said it gives them quick access to a second helicopter, besides one owned by the county, with night firefighting capability.

"For us, it gives us a second aircraft every day, and it gives us the ability to fight a fire 24/7," said Gardner.

Gardner is here at the mountain helipad with Orange County Fire Authority Chief Brian Fennessy, and Los Angeles County Interim Fire Chief Anthony Marrone. They have an alliance which allows them to share resources during a crisis.

"We partner with one another to send each other resources...they are game-changers," said Gardner.

Fennessy, Gardner, and Marrone says it’s been a relatively calm high fire season so far, but they are ready for Santa Ana winds to pose problems.

"We expect's going to happen," said Fennessy.

"The fuels...they're at critical levels," Gardner added.

"The winds are going to come, and the continued drought makes it that much more worse," said Marrone.

Marrone notes that it was almost exactly four years ago when the nearly 100,000 acre Woolsey Fire hit Ventura and Los Angeles Counties.

"You can never get the resources fast enough, so making a phone call from one fire chief to the next, getting a location for those units, and then having them launch's a game-changer for us," said Marrone.

So, how wildfire-ready are the residents of the three counties? Orange County’s Chief gives his county’s residents a C for preparation. LA County’s interim chief gives LA County’s residents a B.

What does Ventura County Fire Chief Dustin Gardner say?

"I'm going to give them (Ventura County residents) an A, because we've been pushing for a long time," said Gardner.

The three chiefs talk at least once a week, and have a plan in place where they easily give, or receive help from their neighbors quickly during a crisis.

One of the quick reaction forces is water dropping helicopters based in each of the three counties. Southern California Edison is footing the estimated $18 million bill for the choppers to be on standby during high fire season.

The utility company is covering the biggest part of the tab for using the choppers, which is the standby time, where crews and equipment are deployed, and waiting for use. If one of the helicopters is actually called into action, the county would then pay for flight related expenses. Firefighters say having the helicopters deployed, and ready to go could save lives, and stop a small fire from exploding into a large one.

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.