REGION: Still not ready to fight fire

REGION: Still not ready to fight fire

20 September 2008

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USA — As San Diego County moves into that scary time of year when hot, dry winds roar in from the desert and threaten to transform even the tiniest spark into an inferno, a question lingers: Could another deadly wildfire strike this fall?

The answer, experts say, is yes.

The disasters of 2003 and 2007 reduced much of the county to ashes. But two-thirds of the chaparral-carpeted backcountry remains and would provide plenty of fresh fuel for wind-fanned flames.

As well, last year’s fires dispelled a commonly held myth that brush, once it burns, won’t threaten again for decades: the 198,000-acre Witch Creek fire tore through a swath of tender vegetation that sprouted after the 2003 fires.

However, regional leaders say they are taking steps to bolster San Diego County’s ability to make a stand against the next wildfire.

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.

Increasing taxes to increase protection

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.”

A million to one

Then again, some suggest the region, by definition, never will be ready.

Richard Minnich, a UC Riverside professor who studies chaparral fire behavior, contends there is virtually nothing humans can do to slow fires fueled by Southern California’s infamous autumn Santa Anas, with their near hurricane-force winds, bone-dry humidity and hot temperatures.

In their frustration, politicians turn a blind eye to the overwhelming force of such fires, which outmatches the resources of any fire department by something like “a million to one,” Minnich said. They put way too much confidence in tools such as helicopters and water bombers, he said.

“It makes no difference how many Tonka toys you’ve got,” he said.

Still, a number of experts say the lack of a regional agency has hurt San Diego County, and is at least partly why it bore the brunt of the recent firestorms.

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.

The Old West

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.

Bowman said it hasn’t helped that agencies in San Diego County have been spending a combined $470 million a year on firefighting compared to $520 million in Orange County, which has the same population, but just one-fifth the land area. Los Angeles County agencies spend $2.2 billion in a place that has many more people but about the same amount of land, he said.

“We realize that we cannot fight Mother Nature,” said Michael Letendre, the 2007-08 grand jury foreman. “We’re not saying that throwing money on the fire will solve the issue.”

But Letendre said the jury believes a well-funded regional force can deliver a stronger, more coordinated response that saves homes and lives.

Regional benefits

Partly in response to the jury’s report, and persistent criticism that San Diego-area residents are too stingy to dig into their pockets to protect their own property, the region’s leaders are following through on plans for a regional department.

Leaders also recently created the position of county fire warden to direct regional firefighting efforts.

“We are trying to undo a bad decision made by the county three decades ago to get out of the fire business,” said Jacob, the East County supervisor.

Jacob said the county government now is committed to spending $15.5 million annually on fire protection, which will keep more than 50 rural fire stations staffed all day, every day, all year.

She said the county is consolidating a dozen rural districts and putting full-time firefighters in areas that historically have had to rely on volunteers to douse flames. As a result, firefighters will be able to reach homes much faster than in the past, she said.

According to a new county report, firefighters will be able to travel from stations to threatened homes in less than five minutes 56 percent of the time, in five to 10 minutes 29 percent of the time, and in 10 to 20 minutes 8 percent of the time —- or within 20 minutes 93 percent of the time.

Ralph Steinhoff, county fire services coordinator, said no reliable numbers from the past are available for a comparison because that wasn’t a statistic the county kept. But he said the new times represent a clear improvement, given that backcountry stations often sat empty, forcing firefighters to respond from farther away.

Even so, the grand jury remains concerned that the county does not meet a national standard for response times.

Carl Peterson, assistant director of public fire protection for the National Fire Protection Association in Quincy, Mass., said that standard calls for full-time departments —- such as the new regional one —- to reach the scene of fires and other emergencies in five minutes 90 percent of the time.

County officials defend their lack of compliance with the nonbinding five-minute target, saying it is unreasonable in a diverse, spread-out, mountainous, unincorporated area.

Steve Erie, a UC San Diego political science professor who specializes in public safety issues, disagreed.

“With wind-driven events, don’t you think that the same kinds of standards ought to apply, particularly when they have the potential to burn all the way to the coast?” Erie asked. “This isn’t Kansas, Dorothy.”

“Absolutely nothing”

Despite the new focus on a regional department, county officials dispute the notion that its presence would have made a difference last year or five years ago.

“During Cedar and in 2007, a majority of fire experts agreed that nothing, absolutely nothing, was going to stop the flames,” Jacob said. “I was on the front lines both times and I heard the same thing from the chiefs in charge: The best we can do is get people out of harm’s way.”

Erie, the political science professor, disagreed.

“Los Angeles and Orange County and Riverside have been much more effective at early rapid response to wind-driven fires than has San Diego,” Erie said. “And all of them have regional fire agencies.”

He said the proof is in the numbers —- San Diego County lost more houses and suffered more loss of life.

Nonsense, said Minnich, the UC Riverside professor who studies fire behavior. He said the losses were mere coincidence and proved nothing when set against the backdrop of the awesome power of nature.

Preparing to cope with that awesome power is something that not only fire departments must do, but something the residents of this fire-prone area must do as well, said Janet Upton, a spokeswoman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, or CalFire, in Sacramento.

Upton said homeowners need to clear brush around homes and make roofs, eaves, decks and outer walls fireproof.

“Living in the state of California, we have beautiful, beautiful surroundings,” she said. “It is a wonderful place. But along with living here comes a responsibility. Unfortunately, there are four seasons here: fires, earthquakes, floods and mudslides.”

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