Originally published August 27, 2010 at 9 a.m., updated August 27, 2010 at 11:01 a.m.
Local firefighters have been busy all week as the record-high temperatures and dry vegetation have caused numerous brush fires around the county. We discuss the improvements that have been made since the 2007 wildfires, and how our firefighting resources have been impacted by state and local budget cuts.
TOM FUDGE (Host): I’m Tom Fudge, filling in for Gloria Penner and it’s the Editors Roundtable on KPBS. This week, a blaze called the Mesa Fire near Ramona was contained after blackening 100 acres. The job was done with 4 air tankers, 4 helicopters, 4 helitankers and 10 fire engines, according to one news report. It appears there was no lack of response or resources for this one. What does that mean for San Diego County, which has been burned big time before, as it faces the perils of another fire season? Joining me to talk about this and other news of the week are three San Diego journalists. Teresa Connors joins us for the first time, I think, and she’s the regional news editor for the North County Times. And, Teresa, good to make your acquaintance.
TERESA CONNORS (Regional News Editor, North County Times): Good morning.
FUDGE: Good morning to you. Joining us also is Bob Kittle, who’s director of news planning and content for KUSI. And, Bob, good to see you.
BOB KITTLE (Director, News Planning and Content, KUSI-TV): Good morning, Tom. Thank you.
FUDGE: And Tony Perry is San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Tony, thanks very much for coming in.
TONY PERRY (San Diego Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Thank you.
FUDGE: Tony just got back from Afghanistan. We’re going to talk about that a little bit later in the show. If you, the listener, wants to talk about something, give us a call at 888-895-5727. We welcome your comments on the Editors Roundtable. Well, Teresa, we’re going to start with you. How are we doing so far when it comes to wildfire preparedness? We have a little evidence, I guess.
CONNORS: So far this year, we’re doing a really, really good job in comparison to 2003 and 2007. The response for the first few fires of the main fire season have actually been rather extraordinary. In addition to the Mesa Fire just a couple of days ago, there have been a number of small brush fires in Harmony Grove and they sent out the same number of planes and engines, so they have an extraordinary array of resources that they are throwing at fires the minute that they happen, which is a incredible contrast to what happened in the 2003, which was the first major wildfire that just destroyed 2,000 to 3,000 homes. It killed 18 people. There were no plans for evacuation, for coordination, for talking among fire departments.
FUDGE: Okay, and let me read once again what was thrown at the Mesa Fire this week: 4 air tankers, 4 helicopters, 4 helitankers and 10 fire engines. As far as you can see, is it resources that have increased and improved or is it coordination?
CONNORS: It is a combination of both. We have more resources thanks to CalFire getting more equipment, and the feds offering more equipment. We have the military offering us more equipment. And what was the second part of your question, I’m sorry.
FUDGE: Well, I was wondering if it was resources or coordination.
CONNORS: Yes, and the second was coordination. There’s much more talking between the various agencies. Before, they were very split, they were very isolated. There wasn’t a clear dispatch between the two; they now have that. The state now actually has a new GPS system where it can track everything that is in the air at a given time and direct those resources to the one – all of the various resources to the ones that are closest so that they don’t lose precious time.
FUDGE: Teresa, before I hear from the other editors on this, there have been lots of – there’s been a lot of talk over the years about problems with coordination and the rules that have to be followed. If you’re going out with an air tanker, you have to have a spotter. And if you are flying certain kinds of aircraft, you can’t go out after sundown. Do some of those restrictions still apply?
CONNORS: They do, particularly the night flying. They still have not resolved that so that remains a key problem. As for the others, they’ve made improvements, there’s no doubt about that.
FUDGE: All right, well, Tony Perry, I remember a few years ago I think you wrote quite a big piece for the Los Angeles Times about the relative lack of preparedness and lack of resources in San Diego County compared to, say, LA County and many other large counties. When you look at this past week, what do you see?
PERRY: I see some small improvements able to squelch very small fires. I do not see anything that gladdens my heart on the aspect of a big fire hitting on a Saturday late afternoon in a hard to get place in northeast San Diego County. That’s what happened last time and it began a conflagration that marched through this county for how long? Minimal improvements, better than no improvements. I heard the San Diego Fire Chief just this morning say that in times of crisis, he can call more men in, to which I say, indeed, the same number of men that were inadequate last time around and the time before that. You’ll call some more of those in. Bottom line, we still do not have either in the city or in the county enough firefighters, enough training, enough coordination. We live with the danger of yet another disastrous fire. You live in Florida, you live with hurricanes. You live in Southern California, you live with the potential for fire if you live in that urban interface, not if you live in La Jolla or Mission Hills, perhaps, but if you live in the interface, that area where it’s not quite city but it’s not quite rural, you’re in danger.
FUDGE: Let’s hear from Bob Kittle on this one. Bob, do you agree with Tony? What do you think?
KITTLE: No, absolutely. And the strategic picture is that we are adequate in – very inadequately prepared to fight a major fire. The reality is that – the forecasts are that we are likely to have a very bad fire season coming up, in part because of the La Niña weather pattern that is developing in the Pacific that will make for a drier fall. But we know that the City of San Diego needs about a dozen more fire stations that it has. It’s already operating 8 fire stations in a brownout mode, meaning they’re not open full time. And marshaling enough resources in the back country if a major fire develops, we simply don’t have the resources. What is encouraging is what Teresa referred to and this is this early, quick response, coordinated response, because the fire experts will tell you if you can get on top of the blaze in the early hours of it, you have a much better chance of containing it. Once it really expands, there’s very little that can be done to contain it.
PERRY: Indeed, if you start having 75 mile an hour winds with embers flying horizontal, which is what we’ve had in the past, there’s very little you can do once it gets out of control. I think the really optimistic thing is greater air assets. Now, whether they’re deployed correctly, there still seems to be this civil service view that we can’t risk a flying firefighter’s life to save homes. And that’s a philosophic debate that we can have but better…
FUDGE: Now, are you…
PERRY: …better air assets…
FUDGE: Are you referring to the night flying issue?
PERRY: Exactly. I mean, it’s one of these oddities. We’ll send a policeman out to risk his life at 2:30 in the morning but we’re much more careful with someone who flies an airplane. We don’t seem to think he should have to risk his life.
FUDGE: Okay, Teresa, I can’t quite tell whether they disagree with you or not but what would you say…
CONNORS: Well, I know…
FUDGE: …to what you’ve heard from Tony and Bob?
CONNORS: Yeah, no, I think we all agree. I’m looking at historical over the last two wildfires and especially if you look at 2003 where the only way that people knew that a fire was coming their way was because they saw the smoke coming. The only way the firefighters knew that somebody was going was just absolutely by chance. So, I mean, it’s a matter of magnitude from 2003 when we had virtually nothing, where we were flying by the seat of our pants, to now where, as Tony correctly pointed out, the immediate response now is so much better. But as Bob pointed out, the manpower is sorely lacking. And we have two recent studies, one by the county and one by SDSU that clearly pointed out that we’re lacking hundreds of people needed, professionals, not volunteers, because a number of people fault the fact that we have volunteer firefighters and not professionals.
PERRY: And we are the only large county without a countywide fire department. Not that a countywide fire department is a be-all, end-all. Look at Los Angeles County, they’ve had some issues. But we still have territoriality, we still have parochialism, and when push comes to shove on a late Saturday afternoon in 75 mile an hour winds, you have volunteers, you have a patchwork and it can be disastrous.
FUDGE: And that was Tony Perry, San Diego bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Joining me as well is Teresa Connors, regional news editor for the North County Times, and Bob Kittle, director of news planning and content for KUSI. Brent is calling us from Oceanside. Brent, go ahead.
BRENT (Caller, Oceanside): Hi, how are you?
FUDGE: I’m okay.
BRENT: Say, I heard some statistics once that the average house in San Diego sells like every seven years which made me wonder how high were property tax revenues going up over the past many years. So I did some digging and if my numbers are right, the assessed value of property’s gone from like $200 billion to $400 billion in the last 10 years. I think they said 3 or 4 years ago property tax revenues went up 25% in the county. I thought that fire departments, schools, you know, all that stuff, was funded. And I guess if they get about 1% of the assessed value of all property in the county, if I’m reading that right, does that mean that the revenues to the county have gone up from like 2 to 4 billion? I know that gets all apportioned out but…
FUDGE: Okay, but your point is – It sounds like your point is that we’re not spending enough money on fire?
BRENT: No, no, my question is if the money is – if the county is getting $2 billion 10 years ago and $4 billion now, where – that sounds like a massive amount of increase in taxes and yet I keep hearing that there’s not enough money for everything and I’m just trying to understand…
FUDGE: Okay. Okay, thanks very much, Brent. Let’s – I think Bob Kittle wants to respond to that.
KITTLE: Well, Brent, the reality is that we have simply not made fire protection a high priority in San Diego County. About 10 years ago, voters statewide approved a one cent sales tax increase for law enforcement and fire protection. In the county of San Diego, 100% of that money was devoted to police and the district attorney’s office. Not a penny of it went to fire protection. And that was simply a matter of priorities set by the board of supervisors at the time.
PERRY: And our brethren who live in the rural areas, God bless them, have not hitched up their pants and decided to tax themselves for additional fire protection. Indeed, the number of tax measures after the disastrous 2003 fire were defeated, including one in the city of San Diego. There seems to be a view of homeowners who move to the hinterlands that, come fire season, other people will provide their fire protection, be it the state or homeowners somewhere else that they moved away from will somehow come to their aid.
CONNORS: And they did it. They defeated a countywide tax measure after the 2007 wildfires in 2008, a parcel tax, Proposition A that would’ve only taxed $50.00 per property and raised $15 million a year, and the voters said no.
PERRY: And in the city of San Diego they turned down, it didn’t get two-thirds, turned down a hotel-motel tax to charge the tourists a little bit more to provide additional fire protection for this wonderful city that they come and visit. Only in San Diego would people be so dedicatedly anti-tax that they would vote against taxing somebody else.
FUDGE: It sounds like all the editors are saying that we get what we pay for and we’re not willing to pay a lot. Let’s go to Gail who’s calling from Tecate. Gail, go ahead.
GAIL (Caller, Tecate, Mexico): Good morning. I love this program. My comment is that I think this is a very antiquated way of fighting fires. We’ve been throwing water and fire repellants at them for hundreds of years. There’s got to be a much better way of dealing with them. I believe that if you were to get in touch with – or the fire people to get in touch and work with the defense industry, who are very, very high tech, that they could deal with this in a totally different way. For example, there are heat-seeking bombs, there are also bombs, I understand, that will suck all the oxygen out of a certain area. Just using those two things, you know, combining that deal could knock the fire out without having to spend billions of dollars on equipment and water.
FUDGE: Okay, well, Gail, it sounds like you may know a little bit more about the technology than I do. But I certainly have heard people say that better fire codes is a good way to go, maybe a better way to go than more fire resources. Who would like to respond to Gail’s comments? How about you, Bob?
KITTLE: Okay. Well, Tom, you raise the point of building codes that make structures more resistant to fire. There, frankly, have been some very good experiments that have occurred in San Diego County for a concept that’s called shelter in place. And the idea is to have an environment around your home where you can withstand the fire and nothing will burn, the right kinds of roof tiles, the right kinds of eaves to prevent embers from getting in under the roof, the right kind of vegetation around the house to prevent fires, and sprinklers, exterior sprinklers, that go on to pour water over your roof. And where that has occurred in some planned communities, gated communities, it has been very successful. The fire, the last big fire, swept through a community up near Rancho Santa Fe that had followed these practices quite rigorously and the fire basically went around it and that community was spared. So that’s a very important element in fire protection.
PERRY: Just doing the right thing. I speak as the former owner of some very nice, lush trees in our backyard that were made into kindling because we’re not going to allow torches in our backyard, not to mention eaves, not to mention all sorts of things that you can do to harden your target. Make you, as the Marines say, make it hard to kill you. Make fire less, you know, less an option. Still, though, it goes back to taxation, it goes back to community involvement and hitching up our pants and doing the right thing for the common good.
FUDGE: Okay, well you’re listening to the Editors Roundtable. I’m Tom Fudge sitting in for Gloria Penner. We’re going to take a break. When we return, we’re going to shift our attention to Proposition D, a sales tax increase in San Diego, which may or may not happen. So stay tuned.