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Congressmen hears concerns from chiefs
harder fire
Congressman Josh Harder was all smiles Friday morning during a tour and demonstration at the MJC Regional Fire Training Center in Modesto.

It’s not a matter of but a matter of when firefighters from municipalities and special districts throughout the Northern San Joaquin Valley are deployed to wildland fires throughout California.

And Congressman Josh Harder wants to make sure that those municipalities and special districts aren’t adversely impacted and made whole for their efforts.

On Friday morning Harder hosted a roundtable discussion with fire chiefs from throughout South San Joaquin and Northern Stanislaus County at the Regional Fire Training Center at Modesto Junior College. He was hoping to gain some insight into the ways in which the area’s firefighters can use the help that his office can provide.

Fresh off of a win in getting an increase in pay for federal firefighters, Harder opened the morning by taking a tour of the state-of-the-art facility – putting out a simulated car fire and seeing a simulated out-of-control kitchen fire up close and personal – before sitting down with chiefs from Manteca, Lathrop, Modesto, Stanislaus County, Salida, and Newman to figure out the best way to support their vital mission.

One of the more pressing concerns, raised by multiple chiefs in the room, was the long wait for reimbursement from the federal government when sending mutual aid to fires that fall under federal jurisdiction.

Using the example of a recent fire in Ripon that fell under federal management and required a massive response from local agencies, the sentiment in the room was that smaller districts are hesitant to send mutual aid to federally-managed fires because they’re not sure when the reimbursement for staff time will be arriving. It is something that can tie up the barebones capital that they have on hand for months and impact the delivery of regular service to residents within their jurisdictions.

That sort of a scenario, Harder said, is something that needs to be addressed.

“I don’t think that departments should get a call for mutual aid and have to ask whether it is a state or federal fire,’ Harder said. “We have completely failed at our jobs if that is the case.”

With the six largest California wildfires in history occurring within the last three years – and five of those fires occurring in 2020 alone – much of the conversation around wildland firefighting has been about forest maintenance and the need to remove fuels from the forests that contribute to the extremely hot, very fast-moving fires that California residents have come to expect as normal.

Harder, who sits on an appropriations subcommittee that is responsible for the budgets of some of the federal agencies tasked with managed federal forests, was receptive to the frustrations of those in the room that have watched fires on federal land quickly spread to state and local land.

“I have seen studies that show that federal land is not as well managed as other land here in California,” Harder said. “It has to be frustrating as the fire chief to have federal land that is all overgrown and you legally can’t do anything about it – and then there’s a fire and you’re responsible for putting it out.”


Concern voiced about

flooding in Lathrop

And when asking about what his office can do for the fire officials that were in the room, after talks about reimbursement were through it was Lathrop Manteca Interim Fire Chief Josh Capper that brought up the fact that the majority of his district falls within the 200-year flood plain – requesting that Harder advocate for flood prevention as part of the current negotiations that are being held around the Biden administration’s massive infrastructure bill.

It is believed that retrofitting the RD-17 levee to meet the 200-year flood protection standard will cost upwards of $250 million.

Harder said that his priorities while in Washington, D.C., and in fighting for the Central Valley have focused on fire and water, and that flood protection would work alongside his other priorities like increasing water storage capacity.

Other conversations that were held centered on the need for the South San Joaquin County area to have its own fire training facility.

During an information conversation with Harder and a group outside of the meeting room, Interim Manteca Fire Chief Dave Marques mentioned how his firefighters have to train in remote locations or at businesses when the opportunity arises because it has been too burdensome to send firefighters to Stockton or Modesto with the volume of calls that the city is now seeing.

Randy Bradley, the chief of the South County Fire Authority, also echoed Marques’ sentiments during the roundtable – noting that land has been identified that would be suitable for Lathrop, Manteca, and Tracy but finding the capital needed to build the structures remains an issue.

To contact reporter Jason Campbell email or call 209.249.3544.