Jim Porter: Cal Fire mutual aid firefighting agreements (opinion)
Tribune Guest Columnist
What follows is a genuinely boring column about contract law. The contracts involve Cal Fire and its Mutual Aid Agreements with local fire departments, which by a stretch of my imagination I figured one or two of you may be moderately interested in.
MUTUAL AID AGREEMENT I
As this California Court of Appeal case illustrates, governmental jurisdictions enter into mutual aid firefighting agreements to assist one another in fighting fires within their jurisdictions. Today’s column discusses two such agreements.
The first agreement was entered into in 1993 between Cal Fire and the Regents of the University of California along with 20-plus other municipalities in Alameda County. The UC Regents operate the Lawrence Livermore Lab.
Here is the pertinent contract language: “5. COMPENSATION. No party to this Agreement shall be required to pay compensation to the other party for services rendered. The mutual advantages and protection afforded by this Agreement shall be adequate consideration.”
The second related agreement, called the Threat Zone Agreement, recites:
“A zone of threat (a threat zone) is a delineated … non-state responsibility area whereon any fire is considered a threat to an adjacent state responsibility area. In these threat zones, Cal Fire assumes financial responsibility for aircraft, hand crew, engine, and dozer resources needed to effectively contain the fire…”
Seems pretty clear to me, Cal Fire is on the hook in areas covered by the two Mutual Aid Agreements, and while I am not a fireman and will not be retiring at age 55, I do know a thing or two about contracts.
THE EXPLOSIVES FIRE
On June 19, 2009, part of the Lawrence Livermore Lab property, Site 300, experienced high winds, which caused an insulator attached to a power pole to detach. This created excess slack in the power line which caused the line to contact another line, resulting in arcing and sparks which ignited a dry grass fire. The fire spread beyond Site 300 into Cal Fire’s jurisdiction.
CAL FIRE TO THE RESCUE
Cal Fire came to the rescue … and promptly sued to recover $88,754.67 spent suppressing the fire.
Health and Safety Codes sections 13009 and 13009.1 allow Cal Fire to recover costs suppressing a fire from the party who negligently allowed the fire to start.
Cal Fire argued those codes trump (poor choice of words) the Mutual Aid Agreements.
YOU BE THE JUDGE
I don’t know about you, but I readily agree with the trial court — ruling against Cal Fire.
The Mutual Aid Agreements would never apply if the Health and Safety Codes were controlling.
As the Court of Appeal concluded, “…the undisputed facts are that a fire started on Site 300; that Cal Fire provided mutual aid to help fight that fire; that under both agreements at issue, the jurisdiction receiving aid does not have to pay the costs of the jurisdiction giving aid, mutual aid protection being an adequate consideration…”
The purpose of the Mutual Aid Agreements is to always have agency backup without risk of being sued for suppression costs after the fact. Who is at fault is not a factor.
Once again, Justice Butz, who hails from Nevada County, got it right.