Sunday, September 21, 2008

Former San Diego Chief: We're not ready for the next fire

After devasting fires in 2003 and 2007, the San Diego City and County fire departments are struggling to build their wildland fire preparedness up to an adequate level. It is difficult to fathom how this situation could exist in one of the most heavily populated and wealthiest areas in North America. Here is an excerpt from an article in the North County Times:
The county government has spent millions to clear dead, dying and diseased trees in the forest, required fireproof building materials and automatic fire sprinklers in new backcountry homes, and urged homeowners to clear flammable brush around homes, said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who represents Ramona and East County.

But other measures, such as building a regional fire department and assembling a fleet of firefighting aircraft, will take time and require area residents to raise their taxes ---- something that, until now, they have been unwilling to do.

Following the recommendation of a regional panel, the county Board of Supervisors recently decided to place a $52 annual parcel tax on the November ballot. That ballot measure, which requires two-thirds voter approval, would raise $25 million for aircraft and fire engines for the fledgling regional department, and another $25 million for existing departments to spend how they see fit.

Given that there is so much more to do, though, another wildfire would overwhelm the region as badly as the last two, said former San Diego fire Chief Jeff Bowman, an Escondido resident.

Even if voters do approve the parcel tax, it won't provide money to hire regional firefighters, Bowman said.

"They have not done anything about boots on the ground, which is the No. 1 problem that firefighters face ---- that they get outmanned every time," he said.

Noting the breadth of the backcountry, where most wildfires start, county Supervisor Bill Horn defended the measure's focus on equipment.

"The area between Sunshine Summit and Fallbrook is massive," Horn said. "That's why we need air power."

In any event, Bowman was adamant.

"We're still not ready (for the next wildfire)," Bowman said. "We're not even close."


In the fall of 2003, raging wind-driven wildfires torched three-quarters of a million acres across six Southern California counties, killing 24 people and destroying more than 3,600 homes.

More than half that acreage, and about two-thirds of the deaths and damage, was in San Diego County.

Last October, another wave of wildfires swept across a half-million acres in four Southern California counties. Once again, San Diego County was hit hardest, with 368,000 acres burned. The county lost 1,750 homes and 10 lives.

A blistering county grand jury report blamed the magnitude of local damage in part on the region's refusal to create a regional firefighting force, something every other large Southern California county has.

Jury members said the region's stubborn reliance on a backcountry volunteer fire protection system, which they likened to something out of "the Old West, when people banded together and formed groups to protect themselves," left San Diego County "woefully unprepared."

In their May 29 report, jury members detailed what happened in the two rounds of fires, and what experts said was necessary to better prepare for the next one ---- such as forming a regional agency and spending more money on aircraft and firefighters.

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