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Enhancing San Diego's Wildfire Response

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June 25, 2014 1:51 p.m.

County Supervisors Move Forward To Enhance San Diego's Wildfire Response


Supervisor Dianne Jacob, San Diego County Board of Supervisors

Chief Kelly Zombro, Cal Fire San Diego

Related Story: Enhancing San Diego's Wildfire Response


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I am Maureen Cavanaugh. Last months wildfire outbreak tested San Diego's firefighting capabilities. Overall, the official assessment is that there has been great improvement since the terrible wildfires of 2003 and 2007. But a recent San Diego County report on the wildfires lists twenty-one recommendations to improve a variety of sponsors, everything from the County emergency information system to additional firefighting equipment. Earlier I spoke with the chair of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and Jacob about the initial wildfire evaluation, here's that interview:


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: What would you say is the most important fix needed after going through this wildfire evaluation process?

SUPERVISOR DIANNE JACOB: First, the response and coordination was incredible. All of the agencies did an outstanding job. But we cannot sit back and stand on our laurels. I want us to be the best prepared we can be, and some of the recommendations that we will be considering, first of all working with CalFire to improve the posting of fire perimeter maps on the County app. The additional 211 call center volunteers during a crisis, we will be reaching out particularly to County employees to get them signed up so they will be ready to volunteer, as well as calling for others in the community to volunteer for 211 call center. And also to standardize the red flag warning roles amongst all of the public land agencies, federal, state and local. They all, right now, have their own rules during those extreme fire conditions, and red flag warning events. Those need to be standardized, and for example, no hunting, new shooting, no Fires, and there may be some others that are needed. And then we are boosting funding for the call when needed firefighting aircraft program. And purchasing thermal imaging cameras to improve fire tracking. This is something that was brought up by one of my colleagues, Ron Roberts. It is a pilot program, using thermal imaging cameras on the ground, and they will be able to provide the viewing through the smoke to see where the fire is rather than the firefighters being right on top of the fire. We will see how well it helps, if it is effective during a pilot program, we will expand it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the recommendations is for a new public information campaign to get San Diegans that are prepared for a wildfire, what would such a campaign address?

SUPERVISOR DIANNE JACOB: Our region, being a year-round fire risk, a lot of people are already well-prepared for the next fire. It is not a matter of if, but when we are going to have one. We would like to emphasize particularly this year, that fire officials have stated over and over that we are facing the worst fire threat that we have ever seen in San Diego. It would be defensible space around your property, at least thirty-two 100 feet is advised. And then, to take a look at your windows, your eaves, outside vents, any area where your home or structures could be vulnerable to fire. The other preparation is from a family standpoint, to have that emergency kit ready. For example, family members, you should identify a place to meet in the event of a fire, because if a fire breaks out during the day it may be your kids are in school, your husband, wife, at work. Everybody is in a different location. Identify a place to go to and do that ahead of time put together that emergency kit so that you can have ample water and food for at least seventy-two hours, if not more.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There is a project underway, the national Forest Service, NOAH and SDG & E's meteorologist will be releasing a numerical rating system for Santa Ana weather patterns, like the scale that these agencies use for hurricanes and tornadoes. Do you think the County will be using those ratings to help in wildfire preparation?

SUPERVISOR DIANNE JACOB: Absolutely. We will be using all of the information that is available, whether it is from the US weather service, SDG & E, or our own sources through CalFire and other agencies in the region. Maureen, it is really amazing, there is probably 100 agencies that come together and coordinate in an event like a major fire.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Will the County be buying another firefighting helicopter?

SUPERVISOR DIANNE JACOB: I think we will be. There is a need for a third, locally owned firefighter, the county is in a position to purchase one. The board has not made a decision on that, I want to first bring the opportunity for bringing together all of the fire agencies in the region, the city, the fire district, the tribal, the military agencies, and to talk about the next steps. What more do we need in terms of aerial assets, ground assets? That meeting is going to happen very soon, and I want to discuss that, but I suspect the top of the list will be another locally owned firefighting helicopter. The county is in the position to purchase one of those.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: How much do they run?

SUPERVISOR DIANNE JACOB: We're talking about probably $5 million. That is a big price tag, but it is an insurance policy. By having a third helicopter, what it enables us, because what if the other two we have are down? And then the city has two, but if our two down we need another in the air. In order to have to locally owned firefighting helicopters in the air that our County owned, we need a third to make sure we have that ability.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: As I understand it, this wildfire evaluation process, you are expecting County staff to come back to the supervisors in the next ninety days. What kind of information are you expecting from the staff at that point, and what will be the next move after that?

SUPERVISOR DIANNE JACOB: We had twenty-one recommendations that the board acted on, and I expect we will receive that report on what has been accomplished within the next ninety days. Also, will be a report out on what more is needed for the region, and we will determine what that list is, establish priorities, and goes from there.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I have been speaking with the San Diego County Board of Supervisors Dianne Jacob, thank you so much for your time.


MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: And joining me now to continue the conversation on the County's initial wildfire evaluation is Chief Kelly Zombro of CalFire. Thank you for joining us, I appreciate it.

CHIEF KELLY ZOMBRO: Thank you for having me.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: People in official positions sometimes tend to be a little too optimistic in assessing an emergency event. I'm wondering, as a firefighter, where you see room for improvement?

CHIEF KELLY ZOMBRO: There is always going to be room, take a look at everything we do, even the system that we develop and use during these incidents, things get stale. If you look quite honestly at things in this world, a computer ten years ago is an antique today, it is good for trash. We have recognized that people need real-time information and feedback and want to see what is going on and get answers immediately. There is always room for additional technology movements, additional input, different equipment, and so on. We are always looking at that.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: You were one of the chiefs in command during the Witch Creek Fire and also the wildfire outbreaks we just had last month. What coordination difference have you seen between those two points in time, 2007 and last month?

CHIEF KELLY ZOMBRO: I can't say enough, the partnerships in this County, our fire agencies and willingness to work together in these times of struggle, when you are baking for more resources or support that you cannot have because it is just not there, and a willingness to continue to stay together and stay unified in the fight, it is incredible. The Sheriff's Department and local law enforcement agencies working so closely together with us, so that we were not doing things separately. And finding out that we had done things wrong. All of those partnerships are incredible, and the technology out there, reverse 911 that did not exist in 2003, it was utilized in 2007, it is utilized again now. I would say the most important thing is the partnership, the ability to work together. County OES office and the City OES office, their ability to push out information at the same time, it is so critical that no one source has your information than the other, because we just made the rest non-credible. We have to work together to make sure that we release this stuff together, correctly. And we did, as much as we possibly could, and there is room for improvement.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: There are so many agencies, so many fire department, local police departments, and when we had the military involved in this firefighting effort last month, is it always clear who is in charge and who is calling the shots?

CHIEF KELLY ZOMBRO: Yes. Because of the experiences we have had, the fire agencies in the County understand that we need to have what we call it unified command. It is rare in this County to have a fire with only one agency, only CalFire, only the forest service, only city of San Diego. Once they get really big were typically sharing command and we are used to working with a unified command structure, and we executed that very well. It is one of the good things that came out of this incident.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: One of the areas of concern are the perimeter maps to show where the fire is, what you think and be done to increase the speed and frequency of these maps so the public can know where the fire is heading?

CHIEF KELLY ZOMBRO: That is one of our priorities, one of our first priorities as the fire service of the state as well as my partners in the County is that we fight fire, that is the number one thing, life and property. Mapping is also a huge component of that, and partners at the County and the office of emergency services are working closely with us to make sure we are all releasing that information with good intelligence. It does take time. Especially when you're committed to fighting the fire, saving lives, and so on. We had to put that into perspective, but the good thing is that there are technologies out there. One thing that we had be competence in of, we have to release good information. Bad information can get people killed as well. That is written in blood. There are incidences the wrong places were evacuated and so on, that has caused detriment. We have to be very careful that were acting appropriately. The public expects us to act with intelligence and not emotions. That is what we do and what we are trained to do, and we try to put the best information together that we can make sure that the good information goes to the maps they get a good footprint of the fire, as opposed to a guess, anybody can guess.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: When it comes to additional equipment, that you might need in CalFire or the other agencies working fires here in San Diego County, you already spoke about some upgrades of computer technology. What else would you be hoping to see the County acquire?

CHIEF KELLY ZOMBRO: There are so many things, a lot of police departments and fire departments across the country enjoying mobile data computers that are out there that show you what is going on with resources and where they are out, moving around and so on. There is also the ability to add some real-time where the resources physically are with incidences and so on. For all of those layers, the ability to have remotes sensory is that you have inputs to see where the physical person is on the fire, walking around. There are so many technologies, and which one is the one that you implement is always a game. None of it is cheap, it costs a lot of money, but there is a lot of different things out there and one of the things that we have to remind ourselves is nothing replaces boots on the ground. Even aircraft as critical is it is, it is only part of the solution because those firefighters are the ones that actually have to put the fire out so it stays out.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Where are we as it comes to firefighters? Do we need more boots on the ground?

CHIEF KELLY ZOMBRO: It is a sliding scale, as taxpayers, what are we willing to and capable to support? You can always use more when these things that. Always. Our partner agencies as well as the forest service had already stepped up additional resources in advance of the fires. Fires had not happened yet, that was already happening statewide. We knew this was coming and we did our best with what we had. The city stood up and had contractors ready to go, that is good stuff. To say that we could not ever use more engines is wrong, absolutely more engines is always good, what can the public actually support, what can we afFORD? That is one of the things that supervisor Jacob brought up in her discussion earlier here, is to take a look at that. They're easy answers for right now today, but what is the eager picture? What are the long-term projections? We have to look at all of it, not just aircraft, not just technology, not just engines, we have to look at all of it.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: In your opinion, is a big investment in a third firefighting helicopter good thing for the County to do?

CHIEF KELLY ZOMBRO: Absolutely. Supervisor Jacob and Horn have both made statements in regard to this. I know that several of the other members have expressed interest as well. The Sheriff's Department has two helicopters now. Essentially what happens, if one goes out of service now you have two. With the weather and the opportunities we can forecast ahead hopefully to schedule maintenances to allow us to have three helicopters up. That is called surge capacity, that is one of the things that we have recognized. To have the infrastructure to have engines and the rest of the resources that we need, one of the best things to do is basically cancel people's days off, and put them on the extra fire equipment that we have retained or supported and subsequently we have come to search capacity.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Finally, we have been talking about the county assessment of this unprecedented outbreak of wildfires last month. Has CalFire done its own assessment for the wildfires?

CHIEF KELLY ZOMBRO: Yes, in different layers. You will not be printing a document like this that is specific to everything. But each of our disciplines, our command center, communication center, our aircraft, we have done meetings already with the Sheriff's Department as well as the military in regards to aircraft. There are many layers of this that we're looking at, how did we do, what we do better or different to make this work a little better, cleaning up phone numbers and contacts, whatever it has to be.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: I know that San Diegans would say that firefighters have a lot to be proud of in terms of their response to the me wildfires. If you were able to maybe name just a couple of major elements that made this response possible.

CHIEF KELLY ZOMBRO: Cooperation. The ability to work together, we prepared, we got our radios in place, we got plans together to deal with communications issues, and the fact that we came together and were united and worked together as one. Regardless of the patch on the shoulder of that person, it did not matter. Funding was not important, it was about getting the job done and done right. Cooperation absolutely was number one.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH: Thank you so much for your time.