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Assessing Rebuilding Progress, Future Fire Preparedness

Audio

Aired 10/30/09

Is San Diego County better prepared for a wildfire than it was in 2007? We discuss local changes in fire preparedness, and the struggles that fire victims are still dealing with. Plus, what else can our community do to enhance fire protection?

— GLORIA PENNER (Host): So we’ve been talking about water and now, of course, it’s time to talk about fire. It has been two years since the devastating wildfires that consumed more than 1500 homes and killed 10 people. And while the rest of San Diego remembers the horror stories, hundreds of the victims continue to try to rebuild. Leslie, you covered the fires as a reporter in 2003 and 2007, has local fire preparedness changed for the better since then?

LESLIE WOLF BRANSCOMB (Editor, San Diego Uptown News): I think it has changed to the better for a certain – to a certain extent but I’m not completely confident, as someone who lives in the wildfire prone areas, I’m not completely confident that we’re where we should be yet. A lot of things happened in the 2003 fires that were just inexplicable. We found out that agencies weren’t talking to each other, the California Department of Fire Radios didn’t communicate with the local fire departments and the sheriff’s department. They could literally not communicate. When it really came down to it, when Lakeside was on fire and they put out the call for more fire engines, they were off in another part of the state. We didn’t have access to helicopters. So much changed between then and 2007. Now they have the reverse 911 system. They have at least one helicopter dedicated to San Diego. They have – I think they’re a little more careful about letting all the fire engines go off to other areas even though they may be having their fire problems as well. But I’m just not sure that we are totally where we need to be because evacuation is always a tricky thing if people won’t go. And there is still the question of whether the reverse 911 system is functional if so many people use cell phones or if your power is out. When the fire gets close to your home—I can vouch for this—one of the first things that happens is your power goes out. So there’s still a lot of hurdles to overcome here.

PENNER: Okay, and I want to ask our listeners about that. We’ve been kind of lucky so far, very lucky so far, no wildfires this year. However, the season isn’t over yet. Do you feel more comfortable about fire preparedness this year than you have felt in the past? Like to hear from you, 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. I’m going to go back to something that Scott said. I mean, we talked about politics a little bit. The attempt to consolidate firefighting services throughout the county, I mean, there seemed to be a need for that and then it faded away. And there – the question is, were there too many political interests to get that kind of unification?

SCOTT LEWIS (CEO, voiceofsandiego.org): Yeah, I think this community needs to deal with something, something simple. That we have, whether we are going to articulate it or not, we have made a decision as a community that we are not going to try to stop these fires. That we can’t, and that we’re not going to raise the money, that we’re going to vote down the investment to do it. And so we need to start – If that’s the case, then what we need to do is think about it differently. Like if you, for ex – if you admit that there’s global warming but you can’t do anything about it, you should start building dams. I think the same thing occurs here. The New York Times had an incredible feature the other day with a picture that showed Rancho Bernardo right after the fires and Rancho Bernardo right after, and you could play with it and show how it changed. And there were two things I got out of that. One is that the fire was arbitrary, the homes that burned, you couldn’t tell what it was about them that burnt, that the other ones didn’t. The second thing was, is that if you didn’t have a fire engine at every – or that everybody built back. I’m sorry, the other lesson was that everybody built back bigger. I think that this community is starting to take fires the way that you would a hurricane in the southern part of the United States. It’s just going to happen, you’re going to lose your house, and you’re going to build it back up, and that we are not in a position in the county, unless you put a fire engine at every single house, to protect them. And I think that the one group – the two groups that are going to start funding fire protection are the ones that are going to be held liable when their houses burn down, and that’s the utility, SDG&E, which funded a helicopter. And I think you’ll start to see insurance companies start to fund fire trucks because the fact is, is that they’re the only ones willing to put up the money to do it and I think we’re just going to have to deal with the fact that your house is going to burn down and just grab your stuff.

PENNER: And so I wonder if our listeners agree with you? I mean, those are pretty harsh words there. They may be real, they may show things as they are but they’re still tough to take. So we just accept the fact, hey…

LEWIS: And…

PENNER: …it’s a fire and your house is going to burn down and so now you have to figure out what to do about it.

LEWIS: And focus on what we do well, which is what we learned how to do well, which is evacuate people because we’re not investing in the infrastructure to protect ourselves, we’re not going to be able to put a fire engine at every place, so get everybody out.

PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. Those…

JW AUGUST (Managing Editor, KGTV 10News): Didn’t Mike Aguirre…

PENNER: Those were definitely challenging words. JW.

AUGUST: I thought Mike Aguirre said that, get everybody out. He caught hell for that.

LEWIS: Oh, yeah, he wanted to do the whole city.

AUGUST: Yeah.

LEWIS: I’m just saying, get – You know, the one problem in Rancho Bernardo is that they didn’t have enough time to get out. And, otherwise, I don’t think we, as a community, can promise them anything else but more time to get out.

PENNER: JW.

AUGUST: I will say in defense of some of the fire departments here, I think the county, on a big – larger level, failed to consolidate a lot of the fire departments. I know they wrestled with that. But just yesterday La Mesa, Lemon Grove and El Cajon agreed to consolidate their management services and then I think a couple weeks ago some of the north county cities…

PENNER: So they’re bypassing county government, which…

AUGUST: I think, yeah, they’re find – okay, we’ve got to get this done, what are we going to do to get it done? And I think that shows that sometimes the folks at the local, local level have a lot more common sense and they’re trying to figure out a way to – how they can save some cost and coordinate their fire coverage, you know, across multiple communities, and that’s what we need. So that’s a good sign…

PENNER: That’s a good sign.

AUGUST: …and they have improved – as Leslie was saying, there has been some upgrades but I was also talking to Leslie before we went on the air and anybody that’s been here any length of time, this – I used to love October and I – Now, when I get up and if it’s dry, I hate October. I hate it. I remember standing on the porch during the Witch Creek fires at my house and looking out at that weird sky for three or four days and thinking when will this ever end? And, you know, the trauma, the whole community went through, I think we’re all still suffer – anybody been here any length of time, still thinks of that at this time of the year.

PENNER: Leslie, I want to turn to you on this. There is something in the Assembly now, it’s Assembly Bill 666. It’s proposed by Dave Jones, who is an Assembly member running for insurance commissioner. He’s pushing for legislation that requires that a county approves a new residential subdivision that – before a county – the county, any county, approves a new residential subdivision in a high fire risk area, adequate fire protection is required.

BRANSCOMB: I think that’s a tremendous idea and I’m not certain they’re going to get very far with that because there are going to be interests fighting them on that, developers in particular. But we saw in the 2003 fires, there were a number of people who died in one development because they couldn’t get out. It was one of those beautiful little Lakeside developments looking over a hill, and there was only one road in, one road out. One car evacuating crashed, blocked it, and people died as a result. It’s very tough, though, to get people to think about that when they’re building their homes. You can also build an entirely concrete home with sprinklers all on the inside and outside, but they’re hideous to live in and nobody – you don’t see people doing that. So there are things you can do to make your community fire safe, and I think he’s onto a great idea but whether it’ll actually get through the Assembly, which is a cutthroat place with everybody having all their different special interests weighing in is another question entirely.

PENNER: All right. Let’s hear from our listeners now. We have Jim in Rancho Bernardo. Jim, you’re on with the editors. Thanks for calling in.

JIM (Caller, Rancho Bernardo): Hi, Gloria. A point, I really have to take issue with your attitude about, hey, we’re in a fire prone area, houses burn down, get over it. Rebuild them, let them burn down again.

PENNER: Wait, wait, wait, don’t ascribe that to me. That was Scott Lewis.

JIM: Well, I’m hearing it, and I’d like Scott and whoever thinks like that to walk up to somebody that lost their house two years ago and tell them that, when SDG&E admittedly burned down – or started five – over 500 fires in the last six years and they won’t turn the fire off – or the power off because these morons in the east county don’t care if all the rest of the city burns down…

PENNER: All right, let’s…

JIM: …because they don’t want their power shut off. It’s outrageous.

PENNER: Let’s hear what Scott has to say. Jim, thanks for calling in. I know that I have a deep voice but I don’t sound like Scott Lewis.

LEWIS: I’m not saying that’s the way it should be, I’m saying that’s the way it is. So if you don’t like that the way it is then you’re going to have to change the way that the leadership of this county is being directed, you’re going to have to change the direction of everything right now and the trajectory of our planning because, frankly, that is the way it is. We are not in a position to protect your house. We are not in a position to protect anybody’s house. And as you can see, you literally have to have a fire engine at every single person’s house to protect it. Now, if you – and fire – fires are going to be a way of life going into the future. This city needs to decide if it’s prepared to actually protect all those homes and to somehow provide the resources to do that. If not, we have to draw an urban limit line and say at that point, after that, you’re just on your own. And…

PENNER: Are you…

LEWIS: …because that is what we’ve done.

PENNER: Are you with him on this, Leslie?

BRANSCOMB: Well, I actually wanted to comment on something he said earlier about the insurance companies perhaps stepping up in a way to help us with this. And the 2007 fires came very close to my home. The fire department, several fire departments, rallied. They did make a stand and stopped it about a block away. Since then our insurance company, Farmers, sent us a notice that we were – if – that we could opt into a potential plan they have that the next time there’s a fire, they will come and spray our home with this same fire retardant spray that they use in the fire drops. And it’s an experiment, and if we agree to that they will do that to try to prevent damage in areas that look like they might be affected by the fires. And we agreed to that because I – and on one hand, they’re just protecting their own assets but it’s a great idea for those of us who are in those fire prone areas and so that is, even though it’s a shame to see that a lot of people are having trouble rebuilding from 2007 and I hate to see that they’re still fighting with their insurance companies…

PENNER: I want to ask you about that…

BRANSCOMB: …the…

PENNER: …why the rebuilding’s so slow.

BRANSCOMB: Well, it’s – a lot of it is the insurance struggle and it’s really a shame. You’d think we had learned a lot from 2003 about how to deal with the insurance companies and how to deal with the red tape at city hall and to get the rebuilding going. So it really is very sad to see the same thing happening, a lot of hold-ups, a lot of red tape, a lot of insurance problems, problems with the cost of construction, which is way – escalated way beyond what the insurance level on your home is. And after the 2003 fires, I ratcheted up our insurance, after having covered this, up to the maximum for our house and now I have our mortgage company telling us we’re overinsured, that we’re paying too much.

PENNER: Okay, now, JW, I know you want to get in on this. Give us ten seconds and then we’re going to…

AUGUST: Well, I just – the gentleman from the – probably in center city somewhere, Jim, this still is an interesting issue that divides the east county from the city and the cutoff of the power. It’s important to the people in east county to cut the power off. They’re concerned what happens when they cut the power off.

PENNER: Okay, we’ll be back. We’re going to talk more about this and we’re going to take your calls. This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner.

PENNER: This is the Editors Roundtable. I’m Gloria Penner. I’m at the roundtable today with Scott Lewis from voiceofsandiego.org and Leslie Wolf Branscomb from San Diego Uptown. From the KGTV-10 newsroom, we have JW August, and you, of course. We’re talking about fires and how to control them, what to do about them, the rebuilding efforts in – since 2007 which haven’t really happened vigorously. And we’re taking your calls now. Let’s start with Stephen in Lakeside. Stephen, you’re on with the editors. Please, go ahead.

STEPHEN (Caller, Lakeside): Good morning, everyone. I’d like to get a comment in and I’m sorry I came in late in the show. Survivor of the ’03 wildfires, the Cedar Fire, we did lose our home in Lakeside. One thing as I’ve watched that fire and the fires since then, including the ’07 wildfires, which I’ve seen a better effort in communication and evacuation and reverse 911 and such. But one thing that never seems to make it into the media is that when you are asked or ordered to evacuate and time permitting, close your doors, windows and garage doors. Many homes were lost to fires just by sparks coming through an open window or an open garage door and with no fire truck present, that fire started the inside of the house and burned from the inside out rather than the outside in. I’ve called media and asked them to put it on the air in the ’07 fires and never gotten any follow through on that. We’ve met with local fire departments after the ’03 fires as they explained why some houses burned and some didn’t, and that’s my comment for this morning.

PENNER: Okay. Very good. Thank you, Stephen. We’re going to hang onto your comment while we listen to Becky from Point Loma. Becky, we’d like to hear what you have to say to the editors.

BECKY (Caller, San Diego): Hi, I’m Becky but I’m from San Diego.

PENNER: Oh.

BECKY: Listen, the – Scott made two comments that I completely disagree with. But the one that he said was the first one, in that we need to come to terms and that this area should have been civilized in the first place. The second one was about we, as a community, have decided that we don’t want to spend the money. I’d like to know why he feels he has a right to talk for me because every single time it comes up, I vote for it.

PENNER: Okay.

BECKY: And I know lots of people that vote for it.

PENNER: Okay.

BECKY: And that we’re committed to stopping this and I think that he has an idea that he’s speaking for the entire community and he is not.

PENNER: Okay, well, let’s turn this over to Scott. Scott, this is your final comment so make it a good one.

LEWIS: In 2008, there was a ballot measure that went up to fund a county wide fire department and it was shot down. There was no political leader that worked hard to get it passed other than Ron Roberts and he couldn’t build a coalition. You know, you may not have decided that this is the way you want it but your peers, through our democracy, have elected people who aren’t willing to lead us to a more sustainable fire protection future and so that’s the situation. Therefore, we, as a community, have decided that. Now, about San Diego being civilized, I’m just saying that we have had to move mountains to bring water here. This area can’t provide even for a tenth of the water that we need here, that’s all I was saying. I’m not saying that – I love living here. Everybody loves living here. I’m just saying that we’ve had to do some incredible manmade things to make it possible to move here and that we just have to deal with the pressures that that creates.

PENNER: Okay, Leslie, you started this whole thing. I’m going to ask for your final comments. You can reply to the listeners or just wrap it up with what you feel is important for us to know.

BRANSCOMB: One of the main things that struck me covering the fires both times, in the 2003 fires, lives were lost and homes were lost and I heard from many, many angry people who would come to fire board meetings, particularly out in Alpine and Lakeside and say, why didn’t you come? Why didn’t you tell me? And they were angry with the fire department. And people were waiting, you were kind of taught to wait until the sheriff’s department or the fire department comes and rescues you or at least tells you to leave. And I think what we have learned from this is that you have to be responsible for yourself. And the county government actually took the lead in trying to get this message out and it’s kind of a harsh one: You can’t wait for the fire department to come to you and tell you what to do. You have to make your own fire escape plan, be prepared, know exactly when you need to evacuate and don’t wait for someone to tell you to do it.

PENNER: Okay, so the days of paternalism are over. You are responsible for your own welfare.

BRANSCOMB: That’s right.

PENNER: Thank you very much, Leslie Branscomb, on that one.

Comments

Avatar for user 'keniston'

keniston | October 30, 2009 at 11:53 a.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

Ms. Branscomb noted that people could rebuild with masonry (or concrete ?) structures, and install sprinklers inside and out, but that that would be ugly and no one (or few) would do such a thing.

Fire-resistive construction can certainly include masonry – which certainly does not have to be "ugly" – and fire sprinklers, such as are required in certain fire-prone areas in the hills of Los Angeles (as in the newly renovated home of friends in the Griffith Park vicinity). Their sprinklers are just elements in the overall design, as are light fixtures and mechanical equipment.

To dismiss such materials / elements as being "ugly" and by extension, to be of little or no consequence in the picture of what it takes to develop and implement community-wide fire safe practice(s), as well as take individual responsibility – preventive or situationally reactive (as noted by another of your guests) – seems short-sighted.

Perhaps a better path to take in this discussion (which I encourage be taken-up again), is to be more open to exploring the complex web of interrelationships among basic planning (City / County), site development (architect / builder) and structure (designers / builders & owners - users).

There is so much emotion invested in the places we live, that when threatened or lost, we too often rush to judgement about what to do about "it." And, upon reflection, charred homes seem to be what is "ugly."

Stanley Keniston, AIA

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