Need for stricter land-use laws obvious to fire captains

Need for stricter land-use laws obvious to fire captains

1 January 2009

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USA — The need for these basic safety precautions is etched in the minds and hearts of thousands of residents and firefighters traumatized by the November 2008 firestorms — including the destructive Freeway Complex Fire that started in Riverside County.

“We need escape routes and we need water pressure,” Idyllwild Fire Protection District Capt. Mike Mulhall said in an interview. “You’ve got to realize we’re concerned with firefighters’ and residents’ safety first and foremost.

“If the funds and legislation aren’t there to make sure we can safely do our jobs and protect residents, we can’t fight some of these fires,” Mulhall said.

“I don’t know what the governor and Sacramento are saying,” Riverside County-Cal Fire Capt. Fernando Herrera said. “In the past a lot of bills have been initiated on where homes can be built and how they should be built, including building materials and wider roads.”

The comments of Mulhall and Herrera came one day after the Los Angeles Times reported the climbing costs of firefighting borne by taxpayers have failed to translate into meaningful reforms at state and federal levels. California taxpayers spent more than $1 billion fighting wildfires in 2008.

“I think there needs to be more legislation passed,” Herrera said. “Cal Fire works with the legislature to pass these laws.”

In spite of several years of foreseeable, destructive fires in and next to wildland areas, land use laws that can affect firefighter safety in rural areas are a rare entity in Southern California and statewide.

Since 2003 in Southern California, the wildfire toll has included the deaths of five U.S. Forest Service firefighters in Riverside County, and thousands of homes destroyed or damaged in the region.

In 2008, lawmakers introduced a number of measures dealing with land use, fire prevention and fire protection, the Times reported. But the proposals stalled, and one major state bill got vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

For fiscal 2008, half of the $1.4 billion spent by the U.S. Forest Service nationally on wildfire suppression was spent in California alone, The Times reported. State fire expenditures topped $1 billion, according to the paper.

Despite the mounting costs in lives, property and taxpayer funds, getting meaningful law changes to reduce future losses through in Sacramento has proved difficult.

A bill authored by Assemblyman Dave Jones, D-Sacramento, would have required that new subdivisions in high-risk fire country have two access roads to ensure residents could get out and fire engine crews could get in during an emergency, the Times reported.

Developers would also have had to show they had adequate water pressure and fire protection, The Times reported.

The proposal was supported by firefighter associations. But it was listed as a “job killer” by the state Chamber of Commerce, which argued the bill could virtually shut down suburban development in certain parts of the state, the Times reported.
The bill was passed by the Legislature but vetoed by Schwarzenegger, according to The Times.

“There is an absolute disconnect between requiring state taxpayers to take on the ever increasing burden of fighting fires when it’s the decisions at local levels to put more homes and people in harm’s way,” Jones told The Times, disputing that his bill amounted to a moratorium on new building.

Some of the difficulty in passing new law stems from a tradition of land use policy grounded in local knowledge of terrain and hazards — as well as local influence.

In Idyllwild, many firefighters knew the crew of U.S. Forest Service Engine 57, who suffered fatal injuries in the October 2006 Esperanza Fire as they tried to protect a vacant home in Twin Pines.

Whether the Esperanza Fire was started by an arsonist or not, firefighters and their commanders are accountable for their safety at every fire — regardless of how it starts, Mulhall said.

“The man in the street might not know this, but Cal OSHA demands we provide a safe work environment for our employees, up to the point where we can be criminally liable,” Mulhall said.

“We’re caught between a rock a hard place,” Mulhall said. “Sometimes a chief or a captain has to say, ‘this is not safe.’ And you have to know that whole area could burn.”

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