How the Region's Fire Protection Still Lags Behind Target - Voice of San Diego

News UNVEILING THE UNSEEN

How the Region's Fire Protection Still Lags Behind Target

San Diego County’s fire agencies have taken steps to get ready
for the next major wildfire. But they’ve focused on cheaper fixes,
not pricey purchases.

After the 2007 wildfires ravaged the backcountry, destroyed some 1,600 homes and killed 10 people, authorities who reviewed the catastrophe outlined what the region needed to be ready for the next inferno.

Three years after the smoked cleared, some those requests have been fulfilled. The region has larger stockpiles of radios, hoses and maps.

But firefighters say the big ticket requests — the tools like fire engines and helicopters that actually put down fires — still remain unfilled.

Without the money to make those expensive purchases, officials have instead focused their attention on low-cost fixes identified in city and county post-fire reports. They revised emergency plans, ran practice drills with the military, campaigned for greater prevention, and won federal grants to clear brush.

As another fire season arrives, authorities say these incremental changes have made the region better prepared than 2007 for another catastrophic wildfire. But seven years after a major inferno and three years after another, the concerns about firefighting strength continue to linger. Officials still haven’t found the financial means to support their vision.

The Capacity to Surge

After both the 2003 and 2007 wildfires, reports highlighted the need for more firefighting equipment — axes, radios, water tankers, fire engines and helicopters. The region had enough off-duty firefighters, but not enough gear to make those crews effective.

Having more tools, local authorities said, would expand “surge capacity” — the ability to deploy a massive arsenal of equipment and firefighters to stop wind-driven wildfires from growing out of control.

Since 2007, both the county and city have bought or upgraded at least 23 fire engines to expand the local reserve fleet. The city won a grant for specialized equipment, such as heavy lifters, for rescue efforts. The city and the county signed separate lease agreements to make an additional helicopter available for battling wildfires.

But firefighters say they don’t have enough working reserve fire engines to meet surge capacity goals.

“We still need to work on that,” Augie Ghio, president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs’ Association, said at a recent panel about fire protection. “We need to build up a legitimate fleet on a regional basis of reserve fire apparatus.”

After the 2007 wildfires, the city of San Diego expanded its reserve fleet from 13 to 31 engines to help offset the fluctuations. But last week, just six of the 31 were available — the rest were under repair or inspection.

“I don’t have enough time, mechanics and facilities to have all of them available,” said John Alley, San Diego’s deputy director of fleet services. “It depends how you want to balance your funding.”

Going the Other Direction

The concerns about surge capacity have widened since the 2007 wildfires. Local governments have cut back on firefighting services and weakened a statewide system designed to help cities in crisis.

Earlier this year, San Diego idled up to eight fire engines each day to save $11.5 million annually. That means fewer engines are immediately available to respond to fires during the critical early minutes of a call.

And across the state, cities are suffering from the same pressures, creating a ripple effect that authorities who oversee emergency preparedness say could reduce the region’s surge capacity.

In California, fire agencies have tried to alleviate the need for building expensive reserves by participating in a mutual aid system. In times of crisis, local governments from across the state send some of their fire engines to help out elsewhere.

But today, local governments are more reluctant to respond to the call for help because of their own budget problems, said Kim Zagaris, who oversees fire operations for the state’s Emergency Management Office.

“We’re down maybe 10 percent of the resources,” he said. “They’re willing to help their neighbors, but only to a point.”

As an example, Zagaris pointed to how mutual aid system responded to wildfires in Northern California last fall. He said the region typically supplies around 35 strike teams, or roughly 175 fire engines, to support neighboring communities. For last year’s wildfires, it provided 25 teams.

That trajectory has especially concerned local firefighters. San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar said last week that early in the 2007 inferno, he’d ordered 20 strike teams from Cal Fire, the state’s fire service. About five arrived.

“We very much need to be able to stand on our own,” Mainar said.

Finding the Money

To date, fire officials say some of the largest equipment improvements since 2007 only happened through an influx of state or federal grants. They upgraded radio communications and purchased mobile trailers with axes, hoses and safety gear that could be shifted around Southern California during the wildfire season. This year, the county bought seven new fire engines with federal stimulus money, community grants and Indian gaming funds.

Other grants have aimed to take plants out of fire’s potential path. The county used an $11 million federal grant to remove dead or dying trees from the backcountry, and won another $7 million this year, which has been put on hold until an environmental impact study is done. The city got a $3.3 million federal grant after the wildfires and cleared seven times more acres of brush last year than in 2007.

These one-time funding sources boosted fire protection spending temporarily, but a key attempt to find a permanent source two years ago failed to pass voters. The county proposed a parcel tax increase that would have generated $50 million for a new fire protection agency for backcountry communities.

Voters rejected it amid a lackluster campaign that didn’t include support from the region’s firefighters. The county abandoned its plan, and instead, spends $15 million annually to buttress existing backcountry agencies.

This November, city of San Diego voters will again weigh on a tax increase billed as a way to improve fire and rescue services. The money generated by the tax could be used for any city function, but the ballot measure’s supporters have promised to reserve some for firefighters.

If the measure fails, the mayor has promised to lay off firefighters to help close a more than $70 million budget shortfall next year.

Cutting Red Tape

In both the 2003 and 2007 wildfires, local authorities lamented having nearby military support but not the proper training to use it effectively. While the county burned, fire officials struggled through red tape to get help from large military helicopters.

Today, the local military runs exercises with Cal Fire to improve the problems that became obvious after each wildfire. Cal Fire Chief Howard Windsor, who oversees operations in San Diego County, said it used to take more than a day to call in military support, but now it takes just a few hours.

And authorities point to other advancements in planning. The county created a written plan for using large facilities like Qualcomm Stadium as mega shelters for evacuees and completed a study of backcountry vegetation, one of its main recommendations from 2007.

In lieu of government funding, private businesses have continued providing some support. The city leases a helicopter from San Diego Gas & Electric that could drop water for firefighting operations. SDG&E, which state investigators blamed for starting three fires in 2007, hired its own firefighting strike force to help prevent fires in the backcountry.

The company has also organized discussions with business, government and advocacy groups to brainstorm ideas about how the region could improve fire protection. It invited critics to sit down and hash out goals in time for next year’s fire season.

The discussions came after state regulators rejected a plan by SDG&E to shut off power in backcountry areas during high fire hazard conditions. It argued that shutting off power would prevent its equipment from starting wildfires.

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle.

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