County adds engines to fight wildfires

Tulare County Fire Department will triple its number of wildland engines by the end of next year

TULARE COUNTY – There are about 4,900 square miles of ground to cover in Tulare County and more than half are remote places where lightning strikes can ignite dry vegetation and quickly grow into major wildfires. Republican and Democrat legislators at the state and federal level agree something should be done to manage the forests to prevent catastrophic wildfires, like the SQF Complex Fire which burned more than 178,000 acres and decimated three mountain communities, but not much has been done since the worst fire season in California history ended in November.

Tasked with protecting much of the county’s vast geography, the Tulare County Fire Department isn’t waiting around for fire season to take its toll again.

On May 18, Tulare County Fire Chief Charlie Norman presented the Tulare County Board of Supervisors with a plan to purchase 11 new fire apparatus to replace its aging fleet of water tenders, engines and trucks. The purchase included a fire truck, two Type I engines, three 2,000 gallon engines, and five Type III wildland engines for $8.7 million.

“Operational readiness is our No. 1 priority,” Norman said.

Fire Capt. Joe Rosa said Tulare County currently has just three wildland engines to respond to wildland fires in remote areas. Wildland engines are four-wheel drive and carry about 2,000 gallons of water. Two of those engines are more than 15 years old and need to be replaced. The third one was added in 2019 and was the department’s first true wildland engine the department ever purchased.

Three of the five wildland engines should arrive next summer and two more next fall with all of them in service by the end 2022.

“This is a huge upgrade in fighting wildfire when we need to,” Rosa said.

In the meantime, the county has been purchasing two new apparatus per year for the last three years. Rosa said the department will receive two wildland engines this summer and another is being built and should arrive either late this year or early next year. By the end of next year the fire department should have nine, new wildland engines to combat wildfires and grass fires in the county for the next 10-15 years.

“That’s more than we have ever had,” Rosa said. “For the longest time we only had two.”

In addition to fighting wildfires, the engines are housed in county stations near cities and provide back up on city fire department calls. Some of the county fire stations were built in the 40s and 50s, and Norman said the county may have to look at rebuilding them to make room for ladder trucks as the county increases in population, such as Station 7 in Goshen and Station 16 in Strathmore. For most of the year, these engines will serve to protect residential, commercial and industrial properties on the Valley floor.

“When the call comes in, these trucks and engines will make it to where they need to go,” Supervisor board chair Amy Shuklian said.

Norman said the county currently has 67 apparatus with an average age of 20 years and a maintenance budget of $635,000. He said the industry standard for apparatus replacement is 10 years for frontline vehicles and 15 for reserve vehicles. Eleven frontline apparatus are over 20 years old and seven reserve apparatus are over 30 years old. Once engines reach the 12-year mark, Norman said repair bills begin to mount to about $50,000 to $60,000. Purchasing new equipment would also allow the department to “right size” its fleet from 67 down to 41 engines. Norman said the 11 new apparatus would include extended warranties in order to minimize the cost of repairs across the lifespan of the apparatus.

“I see equipment on the road from when I first started that is still out there,” said Supervisor Larry Micari, who retired from the Sheriff’s Department in 2017 after 33 years. “We need to invest in our equipment. I fully support this project.”

The supervisors unanimously approved a master equipment lease/purchase agreement for $8.7 million with Bank of America Public Capital Corporation, an affiliate of Bank of America, to purchase the vehicles.

“This is a down payment and good faith gesture to our fire department in showing we want to make sure they are outfitted with the best technology that is available so they can best serve our public and keep our community safe,” Supervisor Pete Vander Poel said.

The fire vehicles will be financed over a term of five years with an estimated interest rate of 1.1850%. The total cost of the lease-purchase is just over $9 million, which includes $287,500 in interest over the financing period, $30,000 for bond counsel and $25,000 for financial advisor services. The fire department will have a semiannual payment of $903,300 for a total annual payment of $1.8 million beginning this July and ending in July of 2026.

“This is a huge improvement to safety and security of people in the county,” said Supervisor Eddie Valero, who made the motion to approve the agreement. “I think TCFD has waited long enough and happy to move this forward.”

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