Panels planning for the next wildfire

Panels planning for the next wildfire

3 February 2008

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USA — Some of the lessons learned from the October wildfires appear obvious, but no fewer than three local groups plan to spend months figuring out what to do next and how to pay for it.

Taxpayers, meanwhile, are left to wait and wonder whether anything will get done before the next round of wildfires threatens homes and lives in San Diego County.

There are no clear answers to the most pressing questions: Will local fire crews have the engines and the air support they need during the first 24 to 48 hours? Will local leaders wrest control from Cal Fire? Is a tax increase essential?

The groups aren’t the first to try to tackle issues involving equipment, personnel, procedures, brush clearance and building codes. A handful of factors, including a lack of funding, have kept most improvements on the drawing board.

Several people on the new committees think change should be easier to sell this time. The perception of most that the 2003 wildfires were an aberration has all but vanished.

So the politicians and fire officials sitting on these newly formed committees expect to correct some of the problems that surfaced during the 2003 firestorms and again in October.

At a minimum, these committees expect to find more money for new fire engines and other equipment. But no one at this point is willing to advocate outright for a tax, preferring to call it just one option.

Several members also said they want to become less reliant on Cal Fire, the state fire agency responsible for controlling most major wildfires.

Regional fire agency?

Long-term, the approach to fighting wildfires in San Diego County could be radically different. If the money and the political will exist, a regional fire department similar to the Orange County Fire Authority could take the place of the current fragmented system.

San Diego is the only county in the state without its own fire agency. Cal Fire is the lead agency.

The committee expected to have the greatest impact, the Regional Fire Protection Committee, is co-chaired by county Supervisor Ron Roberts and Mayor Jerry Sanders.

“We can’t keep going like we have been,” said Roberts, who joined the mayor at his State of the City address last month to announce the committee. “We have to find a way to have a first-class fire operation that we control in San Diego County, and you can’t do that by begging for money.”

For starters, Roberts and Sanders said they want a San Diego fire official to represent the county at a multi-agency coordinating council that meets whenever a major firestorm breaks out. Decisions are made and resources are allocated at the meetings, which are held in Riverside County.

“Our representative is Cal Fire,” said Roberts, who has been critical of the state fire agency almost since the start of the October wildfires. “It’s no secret I disagree with some of their policies and decisions.

“We need to be represented by San Diego fire officials that belong to a regional entity here. Cal Fire definitely has a role to play in San Diego, but we need to be in charge of our own region,” Roberts said.

In order to unite all fire departments in San Diego County, which is perhaps Roberts’ most ambitious goal, “you need a sustaining pot of money,” he said.

A quarter-cent sales tax for fire protection is one of the funding options Roberts said the committee would consider. It would generate about $110 million a year, but would also require two-thirds majority approval from voters.

To that end, the committee has targeted the end of June as a cut-off date for recommendations, “because if you have to go on the ballot, you’ve gotta know by then,” Roberts said.

The committee, which has yet to meet but hopes to sit down twice this month, knows that selling a new tax to voters won’t be easy.

Voters twice rejected a hotel-and-motel-tax increase after the 2003 wildfires. Proposition 172, meanwhile, was sold to voters in 1993 as a necessity for police and fire. Although the half-cent sales tax generates about $2.5 billion a year across the state, a fraction is sent to fire departments.

San Diego County spends about $8.5 million a year on fire protection. Los Angeles County spends close to $900 million, and Orange County’s fire budget exceeds $260 million.

‘We need some action’

Roberts toured the the Los Angeles County Fire Department’s air operations unit last month with a handful of people, including San Diego Fire Chief Tracy Jarman, who sits on the Roberts-Sanders committee.

This month, Roberts, Jarman and others plan to visit the Orange County Fire Authority.

Jarman, who didn’t have the manpower or the equipment she needed to effectively fight the October fires, said: “We need some action this time. We need to solve some of these problems.”

Although Roberts wants to see several changes, including a stronger military aerial presence, Sanders said he’s not sure yet what the needs are or how to pay for them. He said the committee would answer those questions.

The Roberts-Sanders committee is different from the others, the mayor said, because it brings together several cities and the county.

“You haven’t always had top elected officials on these committees, and I know in my case I don’t want to put my name on something that’s not going to come up with a product at the end. It could be a new fire governance structure, or figuring out what our needs are and going after them,” Sanders said.

Former San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman, who resigned nearly two years ago primarily because he couldn’t get the improvements he wanted, is chairing a separate committee called the San Diego Regional Fire Safety Forum. The group is represented by a range of individuals, including one local fire chief and residents.

Bowman hopes Roberts and Sanders “would use our material, or merge the groups. We’re not pointing fingers. . . . I put this group together out of frustration, because so little was done after the 2003 wildfires.”

Steve Erie, a University of California San Diego political science professor who closely follows local politics, sits on Bowman’s committee.

“We’re afraid the official committees will whitewash the findings,” Erie said. “They’re run by politicians to protect politicians.”

Roberts, who has met with Bowman, said he would like to work with the former fire chief’s group.

A third group, the Ad Hoc Committee on Fire Prevention and Recovery, was organized by the San Diego City Council. It’s chaired by Councilman Brian Maienschein, who plans to issue a report at the end of the year.

The committee is focused on determining what the city’s needs are regarding fire resources, building codes and brush management.

“There were a lot of improvements made after the 2003 wildfires, especially in the city, but now it’s time to make even more,” said Maienschein, who doesn’t anticipate much resistance. “People are starting to realize these types of fires could happen on a regular basis.”

At the state level, the Blue Ribbon Task Force has made recommendations that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is trying to finance.

Cal Fire officials, meanwhile, have been reluctant to lobby openly for the chance to manage a regional fire department in San Diego County. But they’re aware of the changes being discussed.

“It’s premature for our department to comment on anything at this point,” Cal Fire spokesman Michael Jarvis said. “This is a local decision. They don’t even know what they’re going to do.”

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