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Playing With Fire?

As published in the San Diego Daily Transcript

by Erik Bruvold

Thursday, September 10, 2009

For the last few years every time the temperature goes up and the wind starts to blow a good friend of mine starts to get worried. He starts smelling for smoke. Clouds in the sky get a close look just to be sure they are not signs of wildfire. He fills up his vehicles in case the call comes to evacuate.

But although my friend is on edge when the fall winds start to blow, it seems that the region still has not dramatically adjusted how it thinks about living with fire. Indeed, compared to neighboring regions, our response has been half-hearted and politicians have been unwilling to take risks.

These are the conclusions drawn by a report released this week by the National University System Institute for Policy Research (NUSIPR) that examined what we have (or have not) learned from the wildfires of 2003 and 2007.

NUSIPR compiled budget documents and state reports from all 70+ jurisdictions in San Diego, Orange, and Los Angeles Counties that provide direct fire and emergency medical services. They show that the per-capita spending on fire and emergency medical services is much higher in Los Angeles and Orange counties than it is in San Diego. Whereas in Fiscal Year 2008-2009 the agencies responsible for firefighting in San Diego invested $153.75 for each resident of the county, jurisdictions in Orange County spent $190.44 and in Los Angeles agencies invested $219.77.

In fact, the gap in investment has grown. Since 2005 San Diego agencies has increased spending by 14.8 percent. Los Angeles jurisdictions have increased it by 18.6% Agencies in Orange County have increased spending by 24.3 percent. Adjusted for inflation, per-capita spending on fire and emergency medical services in San Diego County has increased less than the price of two movie tickets and a small bag of popcorn.

The report also looks at the issue of staffing, another place where San Diego falls short. While staffing among the five biggest departments in LA has increased by 240 and increased in OC by 110, in San Diego it has FALLEN by 8.

“Boots on the ground” matter. According to the report’s co-author Jeff Bowman a critical factor in fighting fires is the ability to rapidly deploy a large number of fire fighters during the initial hours of an event. Massive surges provide a better chance of stomping out a fire quickly and deploying a greater number of teams to protect a greater number of structures if the fire front approaches developed communities.

Moreover, such capacity is also critical because San Diego can not rely upon the mutual aid system during the critical first few hours of an event. Santa Ana conditions frequently begin in Northern and Central California before impacting our state. As in 2003, there is a possibility that other major fires will already be burning the next time San Diego faces a firestorm. When aid does come it will take some time before the crews can make it to San Diego, be mobilized, and deployed to the front lines.

Part two of the report looks at the status of 302 recommendations made in seven reports that were generated in the aftermath of the two firestorms. The track record is mixed. Many of the recommendations in the administrative and training had diligently implemented and carried out the recommendations. The improvements in the region’s aerial firefighting capacity have been substantially upgraded. Multijurisdictional cooperation has been enhanced.

However, those recommendations in the area of staffing or ground equipment that would cost significant resources many have either been ignored or are still largely incomplete. The region faces a deadline when its radio communications system will no longer be supported by the manufacturer and, to date, no long term funding plan has been advanced. The County Grand Jury called for a dedicated revenue stream or the reallocation of a significant amount of resources to fund a county-wide fire fighting agency, a recommendation that fell on deaf ears. Calls for creating a reserve of fifty fire fighting engines which could be staffed by recalled firefighters have not been heeded.

The 2003 and 2007 fires burned close to 6,000 homes and took the lives of more than 20 people. They burned hundreds of thousands of acres and did billions of dollars worth of economic damage to San Diego. And yet, the region has increased per-capita fire spending less than $20. Budgets talk, bluntly, louder than words and by that measure we have to conclude that regional efforts to address fire protection constitutes mostly talk and not yet the kind of fundamental shifting of resources and rethinking of priorities that has been done in Orange and Los Angeles Counties.

The full report can be found at