RIVERSIDE: Fire operations move goes forward
An air tanker makes a drop of fire retardant in the Cleveland National Forest during The Falls Fire near Lake Elsinore, August, 06, 2013.
FRANK BELLINO/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Cal Fire, the state’s largest firefighting agency, is closer to relocating its Southern California operations center to former March Air Force Base land now that a state Senate budget subcommittee voted to spend $4 million on the move.
The allocation comes from the $1.4 billion Gov. Jerry Brown budgeted for fire services in the next fiscal year.
The center is home base for fire officials who coordinate the mobilization of resources for wildfires and other incidents from Monterey south to the Mexican border.
Workers are responsible for obtaining reinforcements and equipment -- including air tankers and fire engines -- when wildfires threaten to overwhelm Southern California’s federal, state and local fire crews.
The center is managed cooperatively by the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire.
The new facility would be south of Cactus Avenue and east of Interstate 215 in Moreno Valley. It would not be on the actual March Air Reserve Base, but on land that once was part of the Air Force base.
Still, the move would be good news for March, which this week learned that it could lose about 150 personnel if the Department of Defense’s proposed military budget is passed by Congress. The Combat Camera operation, which consists of about 125 reservists assigned to document anything involving the Air Force, would be cut under the proposal.
Having the fire service near the base could bode well as the Pentagon looks at another round of base closures, said Jamil Dada, chairman of the redevelopment oversight committee for the March Joint Powers Authority.
“The more assets we accumulate at March and around March, the better,” he said. “Cal Fire will play a big part in what the base does.”
He said having more amenities in the region will make it harder to close the base.
“It helps to BRAC-proof the base,” he added in reference to the Base Realignment and Closure committee.
Although the move won’t create new jobs, it will bring more people to shop at local businesses and eat at restaurants.
“It’s a big boost for the community, as well,” Dada said.
State Sen. Richard Roth, who represents the area, was not involved in the project. Nonetheless, he is happy to see it move forward.
“The senator is very happy to see the possibility of an investment at March Air Reserve Base,” said Chuck Daldorf, Roth's chief of staff. “It’s an appropriate place by geography and operationally it makes a lot of sense.”
The current fire operations base, nicknamed “South Ops,” is located in a 58-year-old facility at 2524 Mulberry St. in Riverside, near the convergence of Interstate 215 with the 60 and 91 highways.
It will cost about $50 million to relocate and build the new facility, said Dale Hutchinson, Southern California region chief for Cal Fire. Most of the money is coming from bond sales, he said.
“The project is moving forward,” Hutchinson said. “This $4 million is to deal with an update of the plan and additional onsite work.”
That will include drainage work and permitting, he said.
With more space than the current location, the new center would not only house operations, but dispatch, technical services, engineering and repair, and vehicle maintenance, Hutchinson said. There also will be a large area for a training facility and staging during large fires.
Hutchinson said in the past, portable buildings have had to be moved in to give them enough space during large incidents.
“Now we’re going to be able to have enough office space,” he said.
Hutchinson hopes that ground can be broken in 2015 and the facility completed in 18 months to two years.
South Ops employs about 40 people from Cal Fire, Office of Emergency Services, U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. The number of employees varies based on the season, Hutchinson said.
Equipment such as trucks and planes are not generally stored at the facility.
A move to March has been contemplated since at least 2000. Plans accelerated when the Riverside interchange was completed in 2007, surrounding the current four-acre facility with freeways.
“It really has encroached on us in a way that we have to move out,” Hutchinson said.
The U.S. Forest Service has held land near the base since 2002, when it accepted title to 40 acres just southeast of Cactus Avenue and Frederick Street. Cal Fire purchased 12.4 acres from the Forest Service in October 2012 to be used for the operations center.