Tuesday, July 6, 2010
The risk for wildfires will be higher over the next few months as the temperatures rise, and the local vegetation continues to dry out. What should San Diego County residents do to prepare? We speak to two fire chiefs about wildfire preparedness, and the current status of our local fire resources.
MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh, and you're listening to These Days on KPBS. San Diego County officials say we're better prepared for a fire season than we've ever been. Critics of the county's level of spending on fire protection may say we're still not doing enough but it's a fact there are more firefighters and firefighting aircraft available to San Diego than in years past. San Diego's June, and now July, gloom is keeping conditions cool and humid, and that's the kind of weather fire agencies hope continues as long as possible. The winter rains brought a burst of new growth that could pose a danger if and when the weather turns hot and dry. Joining us to talk about the 2010 fire season, the good news and the bad, are my guests. Javier Mainar is fire chief for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. And, Chief Mainar, welcome to These Days.
JAVIER MAINAR (Fire Chief, City of San Diego): Maureen, thank you so much for having me on.
CAVANAUGH: Augie Ghio is chief of the San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District, and president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association. Chief Ghio, welcome back.
AUGIE GHIO (Fire Chief, San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District): Thank you, Maureen. Glad to be here again.
CAVANAUGH: We’d like to invite our listeners to join the conversation. What are you concerned about this fire season and what have you done so far to prepare? Give us a call with your questions and your comments. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that’s 1-888-895-KPBS. Chief Mainar, what is the wildfire forecast for this summer and fall?
MAINAR: You know, I think the weather predictors are saying we’re going to have a normal season this year. We had a lot of rain last year, and that creates a lot of hazards for firefighters because it encourages the growth of grasses and grasses burn very quickly, move very fast and they endanger firefighters. But I don’t think we’re going to see a worse fire season this year than we did last year.
CAVANAUGH: And do you agree with that, Chief Ghio?
GHIO: I do. I think with those rains, our fuel moistures are up right now. It’s the tall grasses that’ll be causing the problems, and we’ve already had some of that experience right now with some of the smaller 3, 4, 5 acre fires but we’ve been managing to keep them mostly to 10 acres or less so far.
CAVANAUGH: Right, now, Chief Ghio, as I said in the introduction, we’ve had this cloudy, a little bit cooler than usual weather. Has that actually reduced the numbers of fires that – you know, we have a number of fire (sic) that we usually have in June, etcetera. Have we had fewer fires because of that?
GHIO: I think that adds to that safety net that we’ve got right now because of the weather condition. But as we know, one or two Santa Ana conditions and the fuel moistures will start to dry out. So we’ll take a look at what it looks like in September, October…
GHIO: …that’s still what we’re going to be gearing up for.
CAVANAUGH: Chief Mainar, are we behind in the number of fires that perhaps we’ve had in the city, not that we have to meet a goal, but the idea that this weather has kept things a little bit more quiet than usual.
MAINAR: Well, you know, actually we had the question come up the other day. People thought we were a little bit busier than normal.
MAINAR: So we looked at the statistics over the last three years, and actually our fires, both structural fires and wildfires are down over the last three years. But you’re right, it’s a good thing. We’re not trying to hit a certain target. If we could reduce those to zero, we’d be very, very pleased.
CAVANAUGH: As I say, we’re taking your calls if you’d like to join the conversation, 1-888-895-5727. Chief Ghio, what are some of the areas of the county where there’s a heightened level of concern this year? You were talking about the winter rains that we had and the grass and the foliage that grows because of it.
GHIO: Well, we have three primary areas that we’ve still got a lot of older, heavy fuel. One of them is leading into my district. We have about 170,000 acres coming into the Spring Valley area through that eastern corridor, then there’s one in the northern area and then there’s one in between the north and, I think, on the edge of the city of San Diego. So where everybody thought in 2007 that we burned off a lot more and then you take what burned off in 2003, well, all of that grew again. So we’ve still got the same problems and there’s a lot of risk to the San Diego area. But on the bright side, we’ve recognized that and we’ve acted on some of the lessons learned in the past.
CAVANAUGH: And what do you mean by that? What have you done?
GHIO: We’ve done a few things. And Javier can probably speak to this just as well or better than me in some areas but one with our CAL FIRE unit leader, Howard Windsor, we have reduced the number of fire zones in San Diego County from about 8 zones to 4. This means we’re going to have much better coordination of our resources so when we do get the call for strike teams and task forces, there’s a lot less manual calling around to the fire agencies to amass the resources and dispatch them to where we need to do. And the other things that we’ve done is we’ve really focused in the last few years on our regional wildfire training and structured triage and firefighter safety hydration. So we’ve taken those lessons and really applied to our firefighters and to the region as a whole.
CAVANAUGH: Chief Mainar, I’m wondering, sticking with the idea that there was a lot more rain last year, at least a substantial amount of rain last year, and the more growth, you know, the grasses that grew that are going to dry out and become fire hazards, do – is there any – is it your agency, is there any agency in the city that goes around and makes an assessment about areas that now might be more fire prone because of that growth?
MAINAR: Well, we do in the city of San Diego have a very vigorous brush management program and last year on city lands alone, we cleared over 500 acres of brush and – I shouldn’t say cleared. We thinned over 500 acres of brush lands. And we’re on track this year to do almost 600 acres. In addition to that, we were very fortunate last year. We received a grant of almost $300,000 from the Red Cross to add new inspectors to assist us in going through our brush canyon lands. So we go out every year, very aggressively look at that. Although the fire protection in the county, I think, is the best I’ve seen in a very long time, we still do rely on people to help us by having 100 feet of clearable, of defensible, space behind their homes. Firefighters can’t be at every single home and that 100 feet does make a dramatic difference in our ability to protect homes.
CAVANAUGH: So if homeowners themselves see, wow, there’s more growth here than usual, we need to clear this out, that’s something that’s going to really help you.
MAINAR: Oh, it absolutely does. And like I said, unfortunately sometimes, we have to triage structures that we get to. We can’t save an entire neighborhood so the firefighters assess where they’re going get – be able to do the most good for the most people. And we will look for those homes that have taken the steps that they need to to make their homes more defensible, given us that 100 feet of space, cleared away flammables away from their homes, those kinds of things.
CAVANAUGH: I’m speaking with Javier Mainar. He’s fire chief for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department. And Augie Ghio, Chief of the San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District and president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association. We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Molly is calling us from Ramona. Good morning, Molly, and welcome to These Days.
MOLLY (Caller, Ramona): Thank you. My question is what your current policy is going to be about where you defend fires because in 2003 I lost my house with 285 other families because the fire department, whoever decides these things, decided not to defend the area either the first day or afterwards. And so, you know, obviously everybody’d like to know how do we know whether the area’s going to be protected or not?
CAVANAUGH: Thank you for the call, Molly. And Chief Ghio?
GHIO: Well, Molly, that’s a question that’s on everybody’s mind. There’s really two pieces to that. One, each fire is different. So depending on what else is going on in the county, depending on what else is going on in the southern region of California, that determines what resources are available, ground and air resources. So we have to make that decision based on the incident command and the specific situation. So we can’t specifically say that we’re going to pre-identify this area to protect at the time. One of the things, Molly, that we’re really encouraging from the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association and every fire agency throughout San Diego County, is preparedness of the individual home and property owner. So the more you can do, Molly, to have your property prepared with that defensible space that Chief Mainar was talking about and that you have a family evacuation plan and you have your papers all ready to go and you’re ready, you get set, and you go. You get out of Dodge early and evacuate early, that’s going to help keep you safe. The property, hopefully, you’ve reviewed your insurance and you’ve got adequate insurance in case the devastation hits you and you lose some property. But the big thing is is preparedness before the threat, before the event. And that’s why we partnered with Farmers Insurance last year and the year before in the Before The Threat campaign to make sure that citizens throughout San Diego County, Molly, were preparing themselves for the eventuality, and it is an eventuality. We will have another fire, we will have another catastrophic fire, and we need you to help us help you.
CAVANAUGH: That sounds like one of the most difficult decisions that you have to make as a fire official, Chief Mainar, is deciding which house or which area to fight the fire and which area you can’t. Are there – I know that Chief Ghio just said every fire is different, every situation is different. But are there some rules of the game that, you know, a certain amount has burned and you can’t save that area or you’re going to – What would make that decision for you?
MAINAR: Well, I tell you the very first priority for any fire that we go to is life safety. So when we have these very large, wind driven fires, they’re really a natural disaster and they have to be thought of in those terms. We would no more stand up and have the expectation that we can protect every home in a hurricane and we really kind of need to transfer that to, say, in a large, wind driven wildfire. It’s beyond the capabilities of any single agency and, in many cases, multiple agencies to handle. So the firefighters, when they get there, they will assess where the fire is and where they can do the most good to protect homes. They can – We cannot put them directly in front of the advancing flames. They frequently have to retreat until the flame front passes then come back in and put out any fire that have started on structures. But I feel for Molly. We burned over 360 homes in the city of San Diego in 2003, did the same thing in 2007 but the reality is there simply aren’t enough firefighters to station someone on each home. So I agree with Chief Ghio, the more you can do as an individual to protect your home, the better chances your home will survive the fire.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. We are taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. Thomas is calling from El Cerrito. Good morning, Thomas. Welcome to These Days.
THOMAS (Caller, El Cerrito): Good morning. Thank you. My question, I guess, is for Chief Mainar. I bought a house about a year ago in the city of San Diego on a tongue, basically, of a canyon that comes up to the house. When we bought it, it was overgrown and was basically a tinderbox. We’ve been slowly clearing, removing the plants that we thought were hazardous. I’m just wondering if – does the fire department offer sort of consultative inspections as opposed to enforcement inspections where someone could come out and say I’d recommend you do this, this, this and this if you want to save your house.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you.
MAINAR: Yes, we would, Thomas, absolutely. We’d love to come out and help you with that. There are certainly some dangers in taking away too much of the vegetation. You can find yourself in a situation where you’re actually asked to replant or forced to replant if you’ve taken too much away. So we very much would like to work with you. Let me give you a number where you can call, 619-533-4300, and ask to speak to a brush management inspector.
CAVANAUGH: And you’ll be able to find that on our website later today. I want to ask both of you. You know, in the last month or so, we’ve seen some spectacular but very brief fires, one along Interstate 8 near Los Coches Road. I saw a fire near 805 in National City, a brush fire that raced up a hill near houses in Spring Valley. And in each of those cases, what we’ve seen is engines and water helicopters very quickly on the scene. I’m wondering, Chief Mainar, is that part of a new strategy?
MAINAR: It’s not necessarily a new strategy but we hit very hard. The idea is to keep the fire as small as you possibly can. And the only way you can really achieve that is to throw a lot of resources at it immediately. The aircraft, in particular, are very important. They can get into these remote canyon areas very quickly, start to slow down the fire but it really does take all those firefighters on the ground with the engines to actually extinguish that fire.
CAVANAUGH: So what goes into the idea of hitting the fire hard from the start. In other words, is there something new in terms of communication to get a lot of resources on the scene very quickly?
MAINAR: Well, I think it begins with having a good dispatch policy, so for each type of emergency hazard that we go to there’s a dispatch protocol. In the city of San Diego, we throw a lot of resources at it, including two helicopters right off the bat. Now, often, the first units arriving at the scene can handle that and we have to back down a number of resources. There is some expense associated with that but doing it any other way really would hazard the fire growing beyond that ten acres that we would like to keep those fires to. Chief, you?
GHIO: And then, Maureen, when – I spoke earlier about how we have gone from about 8 zones in the County of San Diego to 4. That’s going to allow when the incident commander requests strike teams through the dispatch centers, it’s going to facilitate a much more rapid acquisition of dispatch of those resources to that incident. And especially when we have multiple incidents going on, speed is the emphasis. There’s three things that we want to make sure that we’ve got covered, the speed, the weight and the sustainability of the attack, and I think we’re in pretty good shape in San Diego County to make those three things happen 90% of the time.
CAVANAUGH: We have to take a short break, and when we return we’ll continue talking about the 2010 fire season and what you can do to prepare for it. And take your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You’re listening to These Days on KPBS.
CAVANAUGH: I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. My guests are Chief Javier Mainar and Chief Augie Ghio. We’re talking about the 2010 fire season and taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. You know, I started this out by saying that some county officials are saying that we’ve never been better prepared for a wildfire season and that our firefighting resources have improved over the last few years despite the state’s budget problems. I wonder, starting with you Chief Ghio, could you give us a rundown of some of the firefighting resources that our region has added in recent years.
GHIO: Oh, absolutely. I think, one, we have to give credit to the City of San Diego and the County of San Diego in enhancing our air resources. City of San Diego has got two dedicated type 2 or medium lift helicopters with water drop capability and night flight capability. The County of San Diego, through the sheriff’s department, has copter 10 and 12 which augment that. They don’t – I don’t believe they have nighttime flight, Javier, at this time but it is another augmentation of that resource. Then we have all the CAL FIRE resources when they’re here, when the fires aren’t burning north of…
GHIO: …the county line. And then most recently, Javier’s been able to secure an agreement with Sempra Energy for a heavy lift type 1 helicopter with massive air capability. On top of that, as I said, we’ve done better coordination between the zones. We’ve reduced the number of zones so we can facilitate faster acquisition of our resources. And then we also take a look at our community preparedness. Over the last two years, we’ve really had a sustained effort to get out there and educate the communities we all serve throughout San Diego County on what the citizen, the business can do, to prepare their property, to prepare their families, to prepare their evacuation plans and that really helps us. That helps law enforcement and fire out when those hit. Then the County of San Diego, through the development of the San Diego County Fire Authority, has brought in well over 30 new resources in engines, in brush apparatus, in water tenders, that are available throughout the county of San Diego. That wasn’t available before that point.
CAVANAUGH: And so, Chief Mainar, I’m going to leave it to you to talk about the flip side of this. And what have the ongoing budget problems at the state and city level, how have they affected your department?
MAINAR: You know, that is the one watch that I would like to speak about today, and it doesn’t only affect the city of San Diego. We brownout about 13% of our engines every day, so that’s 8 of the 47 engines we normally operate are taken out of service each day to achieve budgetary savings. I know Chief Ghio has one engine in that category, and many other fire chiefs are operating with constrained resources right now. The challenge is that at any moment throughout the county there are literally fewer resources available. Now all of us have the discretion to upstaff those units. In most cases, I certainly have that discretion to bring people back if weather conditions warrant but even that takes time. So we’re kind of operating from a deficit standpoint, and I’m hopeful that at some point in the future, as the economy rebounds, we can see those resources added back into the county’s assets.
CAVANAUGH: So even though we theoretically have some more assets, some more resources than we had before, because of the brownouts, because they are basically idle on days, we don’t have as many.
MAINAR: And that becomes a challenge. We’ve had some of those brush fires that you’ve alluded to earlier…
MAINAR: …where we’re suddenly taxed because now we have 8 fewer engines in the system. So if we throw a lot of resources, a lot of weight, at a particular fire and something else breaks at the same time, which is a frequent occurrence, it puts us in a deficit right off the bat and we have to rely more closely on all of our other regional partners. And we have, in San Diego County, a very vigorous mutual and automatic aid agreement. We’re very close to the point where we’ll be able to drop our boundaries and be able to respond across them without concerns about whose jurisdiction it is. So we do a lot along the coordination side of it but we really do need to work on getting the resources back into these departments.
CAVANAUGH: We’re taking your calls at 1-888-895-5727. And Eric is on the line from UTC. Good morning, Eric. Welcome to These Days. Eric, are you with us?
ERIC (Caller, University Towne Center): Yes, sorry.
ERIC: My question is for Chief Mainar and I’ve seen some products on the internet where it’s specifically a polymer in a plastic jug, you attach a hose and then spray it to your house and it is a sticky foam that is essentially just a lot of water held there to help protect the structure. But I haven’t heard much talk about in the news, only on a few sites on the internet. Is that actually something you guys recommend? Or does that cause other problems?
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Eric.
MAINAR: Well, you know, Eric, you have a very – a good understanding of how the product works. It essentially is a polymer that holds a bunch of water, retains the moisture. It is very, very effective. The timing of it has to be such that you’re applying it just before the fire arrives and sometimes that can be problematic. As Chief Ghio mentioned, the idea is to get ready for these fires when they approach, get set, get all your materials together, and please leave when the firefighters tell you to do so. So if the fire is going to come to your home and you feel that you have wood siding or you have shake shingles and they would benefit from the application of those gels or foam products, then by all means do so. But at the end we need you to move out of the way, let the firefighters get in there and do the job that they’re paid to do.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Holly, calling us from Clairemont. Good morning, Holly. Welcome to These Days.
HOLLY (Caller, Clairemont): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. My item that I want to talk about has to do with education. And I live in Clairemont and we’ve been here since ’77 and in the early eighties, Tecolote Canyon went up. And I helped evacuate the elementary school behind me, Holmes Elementary, and I got back on the ladder spraying down the roof of my house. So for folks living in the city proper, thinking that this can’t happen, it can. And my best recollection is that one was caused by someone tossing a live cigarette out the window in the canyon as they were driving through. And when I evacuated to Solana Beach in the ’03 fire, sitting up on Torrey Pines Mesa, cars there that were also evacuating were tossing live cigarettes out the window. So we all, all of us together, need to work on this, and I’d like to see all the media do public service announcements for free for my cash-strapped fighting organizations, firefighting organizations, to remind visitors coming here, please use their ashtray. If you’re a smoker, please, in high fire season, please do not toss your cigarette out the window.
HOLLY: And I’ll take your response off the air. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Holly. I think that’s always good advice.
GHIO: Oh, absolutely. And we do partner up with our local media quite well between the city of San Diego, the county fire chiefs, and Ron Lane, the director of County Office of Emergency Services. We have a Just On Time messaging strategy here in San Diego County but we also have that preventive messaging that needs to get out there on a continual basis. The one thing we’ve found in public education and readiness is that people get amnesia when we don’t have the fires and we have to continually readdress the issue with them. And we’ve been pretty successful of that over the last three or four years.
CAVANAUGH: I’m wondering, you know, excuse me, Chief Ghio, most of our fires, most of the big fires recently, have originated in the back country. And I’m wondering, since there was this plan for blackouts for SDG&E but that did not go through, what has been done or changed in the back country to try to avoid those fires, those wildfires from starting when we have Santa Ana conditions?
GHIO: A couple of things. One, we have to give San Diego Gas & Electric and Sempra Energy some due credit here. They have enhanced their approach, their philosophy to reducing those fire starts from their equipment. And on top of that, they took the extra step of bringing in, I think it’s five or six, type 6 teams that are attached to their work crews, their line crews, out there so that if there is a fire start, they will call 911, they will get the local response and the regional response going, but they will take immediate preventative action to try to keep that fire low or suppress it. The other thing that they’ve done is they’ve made this type 1 helicopter available to the entire region, and they partnered up with the County of San Diego as well as the city. They have put in, I believe, $150,000, the county’s put in $150,000, so that when it gets dispatched, there’s no cost to the local agencies. The other thing that’s really important on all of this is to reiterate that to prevent these fires from happening in that back country is what Chief Mainar was talking about, the defensible space, the awareness of the property owner to do everything they can do to mitigate the hazard, the potential to their individual property, because if you have a weak property that’s overgrown with brush and it’s problematic, then your neighbor, even if they’ve done a good job, is at risk more.
CAVANAUGH: Let’s take another call. Sarah’s calling us from San Diego. Good morning, Sarah, and welcome to These Days.
SARAH (Caller, San Diego): Good morning. Thank you for taking my call. I actually have two comments or questions rather. One, does the fire department use Twitter, the social networking online community to get tipoffs on fires that have started? And I ask that because a lot of information was gathered from when we had the earthquake that way. And my second question is, on the 94, I’ve noticed that the brush is very tall along either side and you have those signs of people who have adopted our – a section of the highway, are those people that have adopted responsible for clearing brush? And that’s my – those are my two questions. Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Sarah. So let’s start with Twitter, Chief Mainar.
MAINAR: Well, we are a fledgling Twitter user in the City of San Diego. If you go to the City of San Diego’s website, you’ll find the fire department there and you’ll find how to access us via Twitter. Try to keep on top of that. I think most fire services are adopting some of the attributes of the social media to get the message out more quickly.
CAVANAUGH: And how about along the 94, the people who adopt the highway, are they also – do they also do anything about the brush alongside the highway?
GHIO: No, that’s not their job. What those businesses or individuals do is, they adopt the highway to keep it clean so they’re picking up trash and litter. And that would be more of a county responsibility or a property owner responsibility on the brush clearance.
CAVANAUGH: Well, now we know. It’s pretty high on the 94. Okay. And I know your department, Chief Ghio, has just unveiled, speaking of Twitter, a new website called crestfireinfo.com. What’s the purpose of that site?
GHIO: Well, Chief Mainar was talking earlier about how many homes they lost in 2003, well, we lost over 300 homes in the community of Crest. That’s a significant portion of the community of Crest.
GHIO: And I’m really proud of the citizens up there because they’ve galvanized to establish a very fire-safe community with all the components necessary, including communications. So by having that website up there, they’re really encouraging all property owners in Crest to make defensible space, to take care of having a fire plan, a communications plan, an evacuation plan because, you know, we only have one fire station up there. It’s a small community but it’s very isolated and it takes awhile to get other resources up there to suppress a fire and protect the property. So, again, the more awareness and the more action that the property owner takes, the better off they are. And the Crest community gets it.
CAVANAUGH: And Chief Mainar, we’ve had two callers mention, one wanted more information about if they could get the fire department involved in guiding them on how to clear their brush, and then this other question about Twitter. Is there some one place that people in the city of San Diego can go to get the latest information and all the resources available to them from the fire department?
MAINAR: You know, they can. They can access our specific web page by going to sandiego.gov, the city’s web page. It’ll take us – right to us. We have a lot of information there would be of benefit to them. As I mentioned earlier, they can also call us at 619-533-4300. We’ll be happy to help them.
CAVANAUGH: Okay, well, I want to thank you both so much for talking with us today.
GHIO: Thank you.
MAINAR: Thank you.
CAVANAUGH: Thank you, Chief Ghio and Chief Mainar. And if you didn’t get a chance to call us and get your question on the air, please do submit a question or a comment online, KPBS.org/thesedays. Coming up, an update on the infamous Ocean Beach homeless sticker. That’s as These Days continues here on KPBS.