by TONY PERRY
When a firestorm swept through San Diego County in October 2003, the region’s lack of readiness became painfully evident as flames destroyed thousands of homes.
Firefighters from different agencies could not communicate with one another. First responders had to stop at stores to buy batteries, shovels and axes denied to them because of tight budgets. And the city of San Diego had no fire helicopters.
This week, as firefighters from various agencies moved quickly and aggressively against numerous brush fires in the northern regions of the city and county, the assault was clearly helped by improvements in communication, equipment and coordination made since the catastrophic blazes of the previous decade.
“We’ve come light-years from 2003,” said Sheriff Bill Gore.
But it remains unclear whether upgrades made after 2003, and then after the massive October 2007 brush fire, will prove adequate as the traditional fall fire season lengthens.
Even as they praised the resourcefulness and bravery of firefighters, local officials looked with some trepidation at the months ahead. Despite a history of horrific brush fires, local voters have been reluctant to tax themselves for better protection.
“I’ve lived here my entire life, but I’ve never seen these Santa Ana winds — these devil winds — in May,” said Dianne Jacob, chairwoman of the Board of Supervisors. “We’re now in a situation where there is a year-round risk of fire in San Diego County.”
Even office-holders like Jacob who have played major roles in enhancing fire protection say more needs to be done.
Tax proposals in San Diego that would have enhanced fire protection failed to win voter approval in recent years. In 2008, a countywide parcel tax proposal for fire protection failed.
U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) scolded San Diego at a public hearing for its penny-pinching ways.
Improvements have had to come by reallocating money from other needs, always a politically tricky proposition, or by seeking state or federal funds.
Still, the county and city now have their own fire helicopters.
With approval from Cal Fire, a city helicopter made 45 water drops on the Cocos fire in San Marcos on Wednesday night. In years past, such approval may not have been granted.
“Relationships between agencies have improved,” said San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar.
Thom Porter, Cal Fire’s assistant regional chief, said there were “some pretty strong conversations” this week among officials from different agencies about how to fight the fires, and from those conversations came a united strategy.
“I’ve been humbled by comments from chiefs who were not friends of Cal Fire in the past,” Porter said. “We could not have had that event 10 years ago.”
Unlike with earlier blazes, an “immediate response” agreement with Cal Fire now allows the Navy and Marine Corps to deploy their helicopters for off-base fires. Twenty-two military helicopters were hitting fires Thursday.
But officials say the county needs more firefighters and fire stations. Despite improvements in stitching together numerous small agencies, there is no county fire department.
Rep. Scott Peters (D-San Diego), an environmental attorney, said the region has yet to fully adapt to the reality of global warming with its high temperatures, erratic winds and drought — all the things that can fuel brush fires. Peters was on the City Council when fire budgets were increased by more than 45%.
“In many, many ways, we’re better off,” he said. “But we’re still resources-constrained.”
Jeff Bowman, who resigned as San Diego fire chief in 2006 after being frustrated by years of tight budgets, pointed out that this week’s fires broke out in the middle of the day, when large numbers of firefighters were on duty. If the Bernardo fire, for example, had erupted at 4 a.m. or on a weekend, things might have been different, he said.
“If fire starts when resources are available, that’s ideal,” Bowman said. “But it doesn’t always happen that way.”
In 2008, the county formed a countywide fire authority to provide better training and coordination among backcountry departments, some of which had largely relied on volunteers. Some $285 million was pumped into more resources.
Response time to backcountry fires has been cut in half, Jacob said. “The goal is to get the fires out when they’re only 10 acres so they don’t become enormous like 2003 and 2007,” she said.
County Supervisor Ron Roberts noted that the failed 2008 measure would have provided $27 million a year to buy more equipment. He persuaded the county to invest in “military-grade” technology to act as an early-warning system to spot fires.
He would also like to buy 100 hand-held infrared units that would allow firefighters to know where a blaze is headed. But each unit costs about $4,000, he said, and it is unclear if the county can afford them.
Better information about the movement of a fire can lead to a better attack. “You want to use a fire hose like a rifle, not a shotgun,” Roberts said.
Building codes have been changed to demand “defensible space” around new homes. Local agencies spent $47 million to remove 530,000 dead, dying or diseased trees in the Palomar Mountain and Julian areas to prevent them from becoming “torches” during a fire.
Two factors proved to be in San Diego’s favor this week, factors that may not occur when the next firestorm hits.
The wind, while challenging, was not as strong as in 2007, when embers traveled for miles, spreading the fire.
Also, San Diego fire agencies were not needed elsewhere in Southern California to help in response to “mutual aid” agreements.
“We got a little bit lucky this time, we didn’t have to compete for resources,” Mainar said.
Still, the San Diego department has a lower ratio of firefighters to residents than many large cities — despite repeated warnings that this puts the region at risk.
Mainar said he has a plan to increase the number of firefighters, but “the challenge is the funding.”