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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?