Santa Clara County receives $4M to fight wildfires

Flames from last year’s destructive wildfires scorched away entire towns, shattered families and killed nearly a hundred people, shocking the nation as it stood by and watched California ablaze.

As this year’s wildfire season arrives, Santa Clara County leaders announced Monday that they’re gearing up with $4 million in state funds to buy new technology for first responders in the wake of a fire emergency.

“California needs to begin preparing for the next major natural disaster now. Ensuring that both families and first responders have reliable access to cell phone communications in the aftermath of wildfires and earthquakes is just the first step,” Assemblymember Evan Low said. “It is only fitting that Santa Clara County — the epicenter of Silicon Valley — houses this cutting-edge technology, and I am proud that Santa Clara County Fire has committed to sharing this system with communities across California.”

The county is the first in the Bay Area to secure state funds after Santa Clara County Fire Chief Tony Bowden told Low there’s a “dire need” for a new technology system after faulty cell service affected communications between first responders and the public during the Mendocino Complex Fire last year.

The money was allocated from the 2019-2020 California budget for the purchase of two Mobile Operations Satellite Emergency Systems (MOSES), designed to ensure that firefighters and residents can maintain communication with one another in the event that internet service providers’ systems break down.

“This equipment can close communications gaps in large incidents and support our first responders,” said Bowden.

According to the Santa Clara County Fire Department, the new technology uses satellite communications to provide “reliable cellular connectivity” that will improve first responder operations.

“Communications are critical for emergency notifications and coordination of resources,” fire officials said in a statement. “During last year’s Camp Fire in Butte County, compromised telecommunications infrastructure presented a major obstacle to notifying residents of the need to evacuate.”

Supervisors Susan Ellenberg and Dave Cortese joined the state lawmaker alongside the county’s fire bureau at a news conference Monday, expressing support during the check signing.

“This funding will bring us the independent communication system that our first responders need to feel secure when ensuring the safety of our community and communities across California,” Cortese said. “With county fire generously volunteering to absorb the cost of operating and deploying this technology across northern California, the MOSES system will surely become a regional and statewide asset.”

The announcement came days after several large fires spurred across northern California, including the Canyon fire in Napa Valley that firefighters are still battling, and last week’s brush fire in eastern Santa Clara County that burned four acres.

“Just this year alone Santa Clara County has seen six fires that have scorched more than 500 acres,” said Ellenberg, who added that she’s been learning about disaster preparation and recovery for the last seven months at a county supervisors seminar.

“In studying the recent examples of the Carr, Camp, Woolsey and other fires, it became clear that excellent communication, diligent pre-planning and a coordinated system of response are the foundations for saving lives and properties,” she added.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection reported an all time high of 8,527 fires during last year’s wildfire season — surpassing a record for the state. The Camp Fire — considered one of the deadliest in the state’s history — destroyed a total of 18,733 buildings. This fire season alone, more than 2,000 fires have burned about 24,000 acres in the state.

Some fire and state officials blame rapid climate change for the increased severity and frequency of wildfires in the state. As a result, Gov. Gavin Newsom devoted a hefty one billion in funds in this year’s budget towards emergency preparation.

In a statement, Low said the funds will go toward additional measures that “promote forest health, prepare communities for natural disasters, invest in state-of-the-art emergency preparedness tools, and help Californians recover from disasters.”

Santa Clara County fire officials expect the two new MOSES systems will be delivered by the end of this year and fully operational by next year’s fire season.

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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