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County Still Lags in Fire Fighting Resources

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The disastrous fires that swept through San Diego County this week should have come as no surprise. Experts had predicted for months that this fire season could be the worst in a century. And state an

County Still Lags in Fire Fighting Resources

(Photo: Fire engine sits idle at the edge of the Harris Fire. Nicole Lozare/KPBS)

The disastrous fires that swept through San Diego County this week should have come as no surprise. Experts had predicted for months that this fire season could be the worst in a century. And state and local leaders had the added benefit of lessons from the deadly wildfires in 2003. Despite some improvements, the region and state still lag in firefighting resources. KPBS Reporter Amita Sharma has more.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger was quick to praise the readiness to battle the flames that ravaged Southern California this week.

Schwarzenegger: I think we learned a lot from past mistakes and I think we're much stronger now and it comes from good planning. Lessons that we've learned from past mistakes and the commitment for everyone working together.

By all accounts, the state, county and city of San Diego made some gains since 2003. State Senator Christine Kehoe calls the improvements pivotal.

Kehoe: The county has invested in the reverse 9-1-1 system which I think has saved lives. California has gone to year-round fire protections so there's more firefighters in San Diego year-round than there was before this change in the rules. The county has added a new helicopter and the city has added a new helicopter as well.

Baby steps says Professor Steve Erie of UCSD's Urban Studies and Planning Program.

Erie: It's improved marginally.

Erie says the city of San Diego has yet to take seriously the suggestions by former Fire Chief Jeff Bowman two years ago.

Erie: When he was asked to inventory and determine what it would take for the city of San Diego Fire Rescue to come up to national standards. He said look you've got 46 stations, you need 22 more. That's going to cost $100 million and $40 million annually in terms of additional fire personnel and basically the mayor and the city council did nothing and he resigned.

The city council also failed to take action on a number of recommendations Bowman offered on building codes and brush abatement. Erie says it's not much better at the county level.

Bowman: You have a hodgepodge of 35 agencies in unincorporated agencies. Some of them very well staffed, Rancho Santa Fe for example. Many of them volunteer agencies in the East County that still rely on bake sales for funding. The unevenness in terms of their fire preparedness capability is amazing.

Erie adds San Diego remains the only large urban county in California that doesn't have a county fire department. The fix, he says, lies in political leadership and money. The latter depends on changing the area's notorious anti-tax culture. Amita Sharma, KPBS News.

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