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KPBS Commentaries

The Politics of Fire Prevention

Soon after the 2003 Cedar and Paradise wildfires, then San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy formed a task force to examine fire prevention and firefighting. A similar task force had been established after the 1985 Normal Heights fire. It is clear that the conditions that contributed to the 2003 fires which claimed 16 lives and 2,469 homes, were the same as those that fed the 2007 blazes which took fewer homes and lives: long-term drought, dry, extremely windy conditions and an accumulation of dense fuels (brush, vegetation) near urban development.

But between 2003 and 2007, little was done to implement the task forces recommendations which stressed the importance of fuel management, another way of saying cutting back on brush and other vegetation which become tinderboxes during Santa Ana conditions. Certainly, Mayor Murphy had much on his mind that must have taken priority over fire prevention. The city was heading for a financial meltdown. The citys pension system underfunding was explosive. Investigations by federal agencies had begun. Then in April 2005, about halfway between the wildfires of 2003 and 2007, Mayor Murphy resigned .

When newly elected Mayor Jerry Sanders took office, his focus was on stabilizing a scandalized city, restoring its reputation on Wall Street, and overhauling the citys bureaucracy. Money, reputation, efficiency. Admirable goals, but somehow brush management was lost in the focus on cleaning up San Diegos sullied image.

Then, last spring, KPBS TVs public affairs program, Full Focus , began reporting on the brush management imperative when it was clear that the region was approaching another dangerous fire season and that the number of city employees assigned to this essential element of fire prevention was minuscule. Reporter Rebecca Tolins ongoing segments told the story of a brush management department woefully understaffed with just two fire inspectors to inspect over 900 lineal miles in San Diego. Reporter Heather Hill dug into the costs if private citizens decided to bypass the citys skeleton brush abatement team and clear their own land .

So now we are once again in the post-fire mode, wanting answers to the current conflagration and worrying about the next one. Mayor Murphy didnt hit the mark. What will it take to push fire prevention closer to the top of Mayor Sanders priority list before he leaves office?

Joan Bockman
November 02, 2007 at 06:13 PM
Please focus on the FACT that we are in the chaparral's house and not vice versa. Wholesale replacement of our natural vegetation has resulted in soul-less places like Temecula and Rancho Bernardo. Seriously, we need to learn to love the chaparral or leave it. Please get real experts on the air like Rick Halsey and Greg Rubin instead of the Texan forestry person Tom Fudge had. He only propagated myths about fire frequency. Instead of taking the position that nature is bad and must be controlled, what happens when you embrace our natural heritage and work with it? -----

Steve Ferguson
November 04, 2007 at 03:28 PM
One possibility that I have not heard mentioned is a zoning requirement to maintain an exclusion zone around developed properties. This zone would exclude combustible brush and plant life as a buffer and fire break. Sometimes, the answer is simple. Maybe it's not the most attractive approach, but how to establish, maintain and decorate the buffer is something that people can work with, and it's secondary to public safety.

Steve
November 04, 2007 at 08:26 PM
One other comment on this subject that no-one has addressed: Isn't the insurance pay-out for losses directly attributable to bad decisions that San Diegans and your builders made going to come out of the pockets of everyone who has home-owner's insurance? How is this issue any different from smokers? They (smokers) chose to light up -- you San Diegans chose to build where your homes are likely to light up. You need to take responsibility for your decision and do the necessary brush abatement to mitigate the risk or self-insure.

Dave
November 12, 2007 at 02:52 AM
The first mistake we as citizens make is depending on government to take care of us. As we become more dependants on government control we loose our ability to take car of ourselves. With all the money spent on fire departments are we now better off then when we had volunteers? Why does everyone turn to government for the answers? Take care of yourself and we wouldn't need these people to disappoint us. The problem is that California has elected to become a Socialist State. Outrages Punitive taxes and regulations have forced business out of the state in groves. A sign of a good Socialist is when a program of theirs fails, they are never at fault. Instead it is the fault of not having enough money to do the job. So quess what their answer is even higher taxes. One day the golden goose will disappear (private enterprise). The continuing failures of San Diego in emergencies are the beginning... Socialism has never worked before and will not work again. Socialism is a form of insidious cannibalism. Just look at our road deteriation, political corruption and crime.

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.