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San Diego's Lack of Resources Under Fire

For all the attention devoted to preventing another catastrophe like the deadly 2003 Cedar Fire, San Diegans witnessed an almost eerie rerun when massive wildfires hit last October. Even though the ci

KPBS & Envision San Diego present The Fire Next Time, tonight at 8 p.m. on channel 15, cable 11.

If you want to know just how desperate San Diego city firefighters were last October, ask Rancho Bernardo Fire Captain John Thomson. He was forced to borrow these three fire engines from a private company.

Thomson: It’s pretty embarrassing for a professional firefighter to be riding on a fire engine that’s usually going around the streets that says rent me for your child’s birthday party.

So how did it get to this? - Firefighters riding in trucks that were once used as birthday party props? How could a community in California’s second largest city be so short on firefighting resources?

The answer begins here. This Rancho Bernardo station opened in 1969 with four firefighters when 6,000 people lived here. Today, 40,000 people call this area home. But Rancho Bernardo still has just one fire station with four firefighters.

Thomson: It’s kind of disheartening but you do what you can do.”

When the wind-whipped Witch Fire blasted into Rancho Bernardo early October 22, Thomson says his firefighters knew homes would burn.

Thomson: Everybody knew it. There was just nothing you could do about it.”

In fact, Rancho Bernardo lost 365 homes -- more than any other community in the county.

Sharma: So when you look at this, this image right here, this rubble what goes through your mind? “

Thomson: I guess mostly disgust. It’s disgusting because I don’t think it has to be that way

Disgust is one of the emotions Barbara Levine feels as she surveys where her home once stood.

Levine: There’s destruction. There’s loss. There’s feeling ungrounded. It’s a very miserable experience.

The Levines bought their house brand new in 1992.     

Levine: This is a home that we’d been in for 15 years. All our children were born in this house. And rather than moving, we just stayed in our house. To me, it was a nest. I cook. It was the center of our children’s lives. And our lives. It was our refuge.

Bowman:  I’m only glad that I don’t have to go into Rancho Bernardo and face the homeowners who lost everything and explain to them why their fire station which was built in 1969, covers 24 square miles today. The national average is five square miles for a fire station, and when you exceed nine square miles, benchmarks would suggest you need another station.

That’s San Diego Fire Department’s former chief Jeff Bowman. He told Mayor Jerry Sanders and other leaders three years ago the city needed to hire 400 additional firefighters.

Bowman: The bottom line is firefighting is a boots-on-the- ground business. If you don’t have adequate people on the ground. The fire is not going to go out.

Bowman also told San Diego leaders the city needed more than just extra personnel.

Bowman: They need at least 22 fire stations today so that every resident in the City of San Diego has the same opportunity, if you will, to survive a life threatening illness or a fire in their home.”

Bowman resigned in 2006 after it became clear to him that the cash-strapped city would not build up the long-neglected department.

Bowman: My analysis very quickly turned to the fact that I would be sitting at the helm of a large urban fire department that was grossly understaffed and under-stationed and a new fire would roll into town and we’d be facing the same criticism, the same dilemma and the same moral dilemma that I just described about knowing that the public in my mind was not going to be protected adequately. So I opted to leave because I didn’t see any hope for the future.

Bowman says there were some improvements since the 2003 Cedar Fire. Officials A added a new temporary station in Mission Valley. Donations allowed the city to buy a helicopter and it plans to buy a second one from private gifts. The city also purchased an automated reverse 9-1-1 system that put out calls warning residents to evacuate last October.

Erie: Do understand that almost every improvement since the 2003 Cedar Fire has been with OPM --Other People’s Money. Federal, homeland security grants, donations from people you now groups like the Chargers.

That’s UCSD Political Science Professor Steve Erie.

Erie: With other people’s money, we bought sure a reverse 9-1-1 system, but being San Diego we bought the cheapest system on the market.

The system couldn’t call cell phones and in several cases it didn’t even reach homeowners before their neighborhoods went up in flames. Take the Levines. 

Levine: This neighborhood did not receive reverse 9-1-1 calls until about 8: 30 in the morning, after it was burnt. So I guess I could have dug through the rubble and tried to find a melted heap of what used to be my phone and tried to answer it.

In San Diego County, things aren’t much better.

Erie: We’ve got a host of local firefighting agencies, some of them volunteer agencies going back to almost horse and buggy days in East County using bake sales to fund their equipment, personnel, staffing and whatever.

San Diego County spends $8.5 million annually on firefighting. Los Angeles County spends 100 times more on its fire department. Orange County spends $375 million. Both counties have less land to burn than San Diego. So why has the region spent so little on firefighting?

Erie: Remember that new taxes is the third rail of San Diego politics. None of them want to use the revenue or tax word because that means an additional financial burden. Look politicians in San Diego, the mayor in San Diego, the county board of supervisors. They are weather-vanes. They are followers. They are not leaders.

The city of San Diego did put measures on the ballot twice that would have hiked the tourist tax to fund firefighting months after the Cedar Fire. But voters rejected both as media scrutiny of the city’s billion dollar pension deficit was intensifying. And anti-tax groups and the lodging industry lobbied against the measures. But former San Diego fire chief Bowman says the measures also failed because they didn’t have the unanimous backing of the mayor and city council.

Bowman: They’re conflicted.

UCSD political scientist Erie says the public deserves blame too.

Erie: San Diego is a place where people want services and don’t want to pay for them. The culture here is of, “I want the benefits, but I don’t want the cost” is more entrenched than any place I have ever seen in California.

Erie says if each homeowner in the county paid $20 a month, that would go a long way toward funding firefighting needs. But instead, he says the San Diego region appears content depending on other counties, the state and the federal government to help them when huge fires hit.

Bowman: Those counties who fund their local fire agencies very well have grown reluctant. There’s a sense of reluctance to send them down to San Diego County year after year to strip their neighborhoods of fire equipment to send them down here to an area that’s perceived as not helping itself very well.

Erie: Calling it a culture of reliance is a little like putting lipstick on the pig. What it is, is we have a welfare queen attitude. I’ve seen it with water. I’ve seen it on almost every field I have studied. We in the sense expect and depend upon others to provide for us when times get tough and it is very, very dysfunctional in the long run.

Rancho Bernardo Fire Captain John Thomson says descriptions like that may make elected officials uncomfortable. But he doesn’t expect any action.

Thomson: I haven’t seen much change in 30 years. They can say the economy is bad right now or the city has got some financial problems. There were plenty of years the city was doing fine. In those years, did we build up any resources? No.