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Discussing Fire Preparedness With CalFire And San Diego Fire-Rescue

Audio

Aired 8/26/10

We speak to San Diego Fire Chief Javier Mainar about fire danger as temperatures continue to rise and the city continues it's brownout plan. We'll also find out about the status of the recent wildfires burning around the county from CalFire.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. We've just had a few days recently that could qualify as hot and even in that short time, a number of brushfires have broken out in San Diego's back country. We thought it might be wise to take a few minutes to get an update on the fire situation in San Diego and see how our fire department in the city of San Diego is prepared, and get a reminder on how we all should be ready for the peak of fire season. I’d like to welcome my guests. Captain Mike Mohler is spokesman for CalFire. And, Mike, welcome to These Days.

MIKE MOHLER (Spokesman, CalFire): Good morning.

CAVANAUGH: And Javier Mainar is Fire Chief of the City of San Diego’s Fire-Rescue Department. Chief Mainar, welcome back.

JAVIER MAINAR (Fire Chief, Fire-Rescue Department, City of San Diego): Good morning, Maureen. Thank you for having me on.

CAVANAUGH: Mike, Captain Mohler, we want to know what you know about the fires burning near Ramona and in Otay Mesa.

MOHLER: Well, right now, they’ve made great progress. As your listeners well know, we’ve come into a very active fire activity just in the past week. Right now, we’re happy to report that the fires are almost all contained but that doesn’t leave us out of the woods yet. We expect additional high temperatures today. There is humidity in the area but right now everything is status quo and things are looking very well.

CAVANAUGH: We know that the heat, of course, is one of the things that promotes the outbreak of fire in the back country but what are the things that are helping firefighters at this point?

MOHLER: Well, it’s – we go to CalFire and along with our cooperative with San Diego City Fire-Rescue and all of our partners throughout the county, we go into what we call staffing patterns. And speaking just for CalFire right now, we do – we order up additional resources and stage them in strategic areas and staff additional engines and what helps, too, is quick response of those engine companies and also the use of our aircraft. In conjunction with the firefighters on the ground and the aircraft, we use – with San Diego City Fire-Rescue, CalFire’s aircraft, we also have access to the United States Forest Service but we’ve been very fortunate to get out there in a timely manner. We haven’t had – these fires haven’t been wind driven, and hitting them hard and hitting them early, we keep them from spreading.

CAVANAUGH: And the fact that humidity is still pretty high, how does that help?

MOHLER: The humidity, what happens is our fuels, they retain moisture, even the dead fuels, and when we have higher fuel moistures, what we call our rate of spread, how fast the fire is moving, when we have a high fuel moisture, when we have these humidities or this monsoonal flow, it actually slows the rate of spread and gives us the upper hand as far as stopping the fires.

CAVANAUGH: And do we know any specifics on what has caused the fires that have broken out in the last few days?

MOHLER: You know, CalFire Law Enforcement along with the United States Fire Service and our local partners here are currently investigating those fires. As soon as we get the causes, we release them as soon as possible to the media and the public.

CAVANAUGH: And, Captain Mohler, just a final question to you, if I may, what are you telling people to do to protect their homes and perhaps prepare for evacuation if it comes to that?

MOHLER: Well, we preach it all year long and right now we’re into the busy portion of the year, is defensible space. We preach it, 100 foot clearance around your home. Having a fire safe landscape, and that not only benefits the resident but that also benefits the fire crews that are coming into the area that are coming to your home to be able to defend the property. And also, we want to make sure that residents have what we call a – well, their evacuation plan, a Ready Set Go program. Be ready. Have a plan. Move it into what we call the set mode. Have your important documents, medications, contacts with relatives. And then go. Leave early, don’t stay behind. And that benefits not only the firefighters that are responding to the area but also the safety of the residents, you know, if they are traveling those streets. We’re going to have fire equipment in there. It’s a very chaotic scene, so leave early. And for your listeners, for more information, they can visit a website. It’s readyforwildfire.org for additional information.

CAVANAUGH: Captain Mohler, thank you so much.

MOHLER: Great. Thank you for having us.

CAVANAUGH: Captain Mike Mohler, a spokesman for CalFire. I’d like to reintroduce Chief Javier Mainar, Chief of the City of San Diego’s Fire-Rescue Department. We heard a little bit from Captain Mohler about how the city fire department assisted CalFire with the recent wildfires. Tell us a little bit more about that.

CHIEF MAINAR: Well, we’re fortunate here in San Diego County. We have a very good CalFire unit chief responsible for CalFire in our county, very much interested in cooperating and then good coordination between all of the agencies in the county. We operate two firefighting helicopters. The second one was brought online here in July. We distaff it for part of the year but now they’re both fully staffed. We’re also coordinating the dispatch of SDG&E’s helitanker—and I can speak more about that a little bit later—but we have those resources, one of which was called out to the recent fires, and we also have ground forces, not only from the City of San Diego but from fire departments throughout the county that respond and assist CalFire and the U.S. Forest Service with these incidents.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, Chief Mainar, are there areas around the city of San Diego that you monitor more closely during times of high fire danger?

CHIEF MAINAR: Well, you know, it’s interesting, in the city of San Diego, well over 90% of our territory is considered to be in a very high fire hazard severity zone. So the climate and the topography that we have really puts the city at great risk. We’re also challenged…

CAVANAUGH: You mean with the canyons.

CHIEF MAINAR: Well, it’s the canyons and we have about…

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

CHIEF MAINAR: …900 linear miles of canyon rim within the city and the homes at the tops of those ridges are the big challenges for us.

CAVANAUGH: And does the fire department work with the police department to patrol parts of the county?

CHIEF MAINAR: Well, part of the city, certainly. And the police, law enforcement, when we have major incidents like this, not only wildfires but any disaster, they’re instrumental in that they handle the evacuation portion of it and securing neighborhoods once we’ve had them evacuated, which is also very critical.

CAVANAUGH: I want to go to this subject of brownouts that have impacted the fire department because of city budget cuts. And I’m wondering how much the city has been able to contribute in terms of support? Have the brownouts impacted your services?

CHIEF MAINAR: The brownouts have certainly impacted day to day operations within the city of San Diego. And what I’ve often said is anytime that we have a delayed response, and we have had response times lengthened because of the brownouts, but any time we have a delay like that, there is some level of impact. It can be something as mild as greater anxiety for those few minutes it takes us to get there to really something as potentially tragic as someone losing their life because we did not get there quickly enough. But for these wildfire events, we’ve not been substantially affected. We can still provide a high level of resources. And I have the ability at any time to basically cancel the brownouts based on operational conditions and even bring staff in at well above brownout levels.

CAVANAUGH: That was going to be my question to you, so you can lift a brownout during times of high fire danger or some other emergency?

CHIEF MAINAR: That’s correct so if either the activities are rising due to fires or other activities or we predict severe weather hitting the city of San Diego that would indicate we have a greater chance of a large fire, then I can choose to restaff one or more of those eight engines.

CAVANAUGH: Now there’s been a request by San Diego City Councilman Kevin Faulconer to take a new look at firefighting staffing…

CHIEF MAINAR: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: …the staffing of firefighters, so more fire engines can be put back in service. How do you respond to that request?

CHIEF MAINAR: Well, the request has gone to our Chief Operating Officer, Jay Goldstone, and I know that they’re looking at that. What I’ve told city council in the past is, because many of them have wanted to help restore them. Public safety is a great concern to them. They want to restore the brownouts as quickly as they can. But any time that we do that, it erodes some of the savings that were projected to be achieved from the brownouts, and that does impact the budget. The challenge as well is that some of the fixes that are being recommended are short term. I might be able to get an engine back on this day or that day, one or two at a time, but the reality is I need those 8 engines back in the city to provide the level of service we have and we then need to have a discussion about how we correct the deficit of fire stations that have occurred in the city over the past few decades.

CAVANAUGH: Part of the idea that has been basically floated to the press and in the city council is that perhaps paying overtime to one or two firefighters per engine might be enough to put brownout stations back online. Do you think that would work?

CHIEF MAINAR: Well, that is a correct statement. Sometimes when we brown out an engine, we really only need perhaps one or two of those four people to fill in place of other firefighters who are absent from duty. So the suggestion is, let’s not do that, let’s keep that unit in play and let’s hire back a couple of people on overtime. But, once again, you get to the situation where it does erode the savings that the mayor’s counting on to balance the budget and, as well, it’s a very temporary fix. So that day I may be able to get an engine back but particularly during the summer months, I have browned out all 8 engines and more often than not, all of the people from those engines are being used in place of others.

CAVANAUGH: You say now that we’re into late August and we’re moving into September, October, that there’s a ramp-up of your preparedness. Tell us more about that.

CHIEF MAINAR: You know, there definitely is. We have hazards that occur throughout the year, so we have to be prepared at all times. We become very concerned when it gets dry, as it has been now. We’re in, I think, our third or fourth year of drought. In addition, we’re getting into the fall months when the Santa Ana winds begin to blow. And while wildfires can be a challenge to manage at any time, when they’re wind-driven like that, they become, in my view, essentially natural disasters and require a great number of resources. So we go through annual wild land refresher training, tune our crews up, make sure they’re proficient in the wild land activities they’ll be in. We bring that second hot helicopter back on duty. It’s off for six months of the year. We strengthen the agreements we have with our cooperators throughout the county to make sure that the operations are flawless, and, as I said, this year, as we did last year, we have the great benefit of having access to another helicopter in the county. It’s a very large helicopter, can drop over 2500 gallons of water, and it’s being provided to us by San Diego Gas & Electric.

CAVANAUGH: And tell us more about the cooperators, as you call them, the other agencies that will work with your fire department if there is an outbreak of fire in the city of San Diego.

CHIEF MAINAR: Well, day to day in San Diego, there are over 50 individual fire agencies. And we have meetings and coordination meetings, and we have a very sophisticated incident command system where everyone can fold into a firefighting effort. We establish what’s called unified command where we have all of the key players making decisions, participating in that. No one agency has enough resources to handle these kinds of very large fires on their own and it’s most efficient for the taxpayers, most efficient for the firefighters, to have these strong partnerships.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder, just as a person living in the city of San Diego, we know what it’s like to be driving on the freeway or to look outside your house and to see that large plume of black smoke that indicates that there’s a significant fire burning. When we see that, perhaps when we’re on the freeway, what’s some advice? Should we certainly not travel towards that? Do you find some people just go to look and see what’s going on?

CHIEF MAINAR: You know, we do get our fair share of folks who are interested in doing that. I will say a couple of things. When you start to move toward the incident then you start to get in the way of folks who are trying to evacuate and also fire resources that are trying to get in to it, and quite often those plumes even though they look very close, they’re actually quite far away and maybe back in the back country to a place that’s not accessible to you at all. So my advice is don’t run toward the fire. That’s what you pay the firefighters to do.

CAVANAUGH: Right.

CHIEF MAINAR: Run away from the fire.

CAVANAUGH: And – But it does make you nervous, I mean, when you’re just driving along, you start to see that and you start to wonder about, you know, is this going to be a big one? Am I going to be affected? So is the idea to just be always ready this time of year?

CHIEF MAINAR: Well, you know, absolutely. And our local media, including KPBS, of course, are instrumental in getting the message out when we have problems like that so you need to, if you see an incident like that, stay tuned to the radio. We do a good job of getting information out about evacuations. But Captain Mohler from CalFire had it right; We have a plan called Ready Set Go. There are things that you can do in advance to make yourself ready should any kind of disaster hit. Once you have – the disaster looks like it may be impacting your community, make all the preparations you can to leave your house and once you’ve completed those preparations, if it looks like it’s going to come to your community, leave as early as you possibly can. We lose so many people throughout the country who wait too long who think they may be able to fight the fire or it may skirt their community and we lose folks, unfortunately, who are traveling on the roadway and get trapped. We’ve had some tragic examples of that here in San Diego County.

CAVANAUGH: And we all remember the Witch Fire in 2007 where half a million people were evacuated. If, you know, it should come to that again, do we have any other plans of evacuations, evacuation centers or evacuation set up? I know this was all sort of jury-rigged, you know, during 2007 because we didn’t expect that. What other plans have been put in place now?

CHIEF MAINAR: Well, that’s a very good description of it. In 2007, we scrambled to stand up some what we called mega shelters to a unprecedented number of people that we had to move out of harm’s way. I think the County and the City and all the other partners did a remarkable job of pulling that off. But since that time, we’ve recognized that we could be better coordinated, so both the City of San Diego and the County of San Diego have brought consultants in to help develop mega shelter plans. We’re well into that planning effort. I think you will see a more seamless approach next time around. We’re better prepared.

CAVANAUGH: We hope we don’t see it.

CHIEF MAINAR: I hope so, too.

CAVANAUGH: But I appreciate your being here. Thank you for telling us all this stuff, it makes us feel better. Thank you, Chief Mainar.

CHIEF MAINAR: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: I’ve been speaking with Javier Mainar. He is Fire Chief of the City of San Diego’s Fire-Rescue Department. Earlier, I spoke with Captain Mike Mohler of CalFire. And if you’d like to comment, you can go online at KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, the potential and the challenges of the emerging science of synthetic biology, that’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.

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