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San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob: ‘We’ll Never Prevent Another Big Fire’

San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob is pictured in this photo taken Oct....

Above: San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob is pictured in this photo taken Oct. 17, 2017.

Following the 2007 Wildfires, San Diego County was criticized for the amount of money it spent on fire prevention each year, $8.5 million compared to Los Angeles County, which spent 100 times more on its fire department and Orange County which spent $375 million dollars.

San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob wanted to make big changes after the fires to invest in fire prevention. The majority of the nearly 300,000 acres burned by the Harris and Witch Creek fires were in the county's unincorporated area represented by Supervisor Jacob.

To mark the 10 year anniversary of the 2007 wildfires, KPBS North County reporter Alison St John spoke with Jacob about whether the county has done enough to prepare for the next wildfire. Here's that interview.

Q: Back in 2017, I remember that San Diego was the only large county in California that did not have its own county fire authority. It was disbanded back in the 1970s to save money I think. And since then the county has been working to try to get a more coordinated fire response and protection force. How much progress have we made would you say?

A: A lot. It was 2008, the County Fire Authority was actually started. Even though the county had started investing money very slowly after the Cedar Fire up until 2008. But 2007 was a greater impetuous. So what we have under the San Diego County Fire Authority now is over a million acres. And that’s of backcountry land. Many of those acres were underserved or not served at all by a fire agency. We had volunteer departments and a real hodgepodge of entities and a disparity in service levels.

Q: Julian has just voted last month not to join the County Fire Authority. Are you concerned there are still some holes in the system there?

A: I am concerned. If you look at the map you’ll see a hole in the middle. And that’s the Julian fire district. I’m not quite sure that the people in the community and property owners, there are many property owners who own homes up there, weekend homes, really realize what that means.

Q: How much does the county spend on fire prevention?

A. About $35 million annually. So while other fire departments have been cutting back, the County Fire Authority has been growing and the board of supervisors has continually invested more money into it.

Q: Ok well that’s compared to about $8.5 million back in 2008?

A: Correct

Q: So that’s pretty substantial growth but still maybe nothing like as much as L.A. County invests?

A: Well we’re not as big as L.A. County and we don’t get the same amount as our property taxes here that L.A. County does and that’s troublesome. But, we’ve made great investment and not only that but facilities. A lot of those volunteer fire companies, they had fire stations but they didn’t have overnight living facilities. So a lot of the money went into facilities and then vegetation management. And then of course the resources, the personnel as well as fire trucks, water tenders and so on.

Q: Back in 2008 the voters rejected a bond measure that would have raised $50 million a year for fire prevention. Do you feel like San Diego is sorely missing that kind of resource?

A: It’s never enough, it’s never enough and we can always do more. But the county has dug into their budget and made it a priority. This board of supervisors unanimously has said, you know, fire protection is a priority. And we have a very cost-effective model to where we have the paid fire professionals working alongside the reserves and they all have the same training and background and so on. And we’re very fortunate to have the reserves be a part of that.

Q: SDG&E was found to be responsible for several of the fires back in 2007. Has SDG&E done enough to make their facilities, their lines safer?

A: No. Not at all. I mean, the Cedar Fire in 2003 should have been a wake up call for SDG&E to harden their infrastructure. That is, to change out those wood poles to steel poles, and by the way, as we speak they’re still doing it. They still haven’t completed the job. But to separate those wires, it was the arching of the wires that the wind caused to come together that started those fires back in 07. They have not done that.

Q: What do you make of the CPUC’s delays in making a decision on how much SDG&E should reimburse people for their role in the fire?

A: I’m concerned. I mean, I’m deeply concerned about the decision, potential decision that the PUC will be making on this. People should not be paying the cost of those fires, period. SDG&E caused the fires, the company should pay.

Q: Back in 2008 the county spent about $50 million on brush removal, brush clearance. Is the county still doing any of that?

A: Those were federal dollars, and that was for the dead, diseased and dying trees. We lost so many in the Cedar Fire. And that money unfortunately has run out. The county continues though to be clearing road right-of-ways in doing what we can on our county property. But a lot of our property is federal-state property. The feds and the state need to step up and take care of their property too in terms of vegetation management. But then all of us as property owners have a job to do to make sure we have defensible space.

Q: There is a lot of new development being proposed for the unincorporated areas – like lilac hills which did not pass. But then we have Newland Sierra project that is perhaps in the works. Is the county asking developers who build in the backcountry to do enough for fire prevention?

A: Well first of all, we spent a lot of money and many years on a general plan update. And that general plan update is pretty darn good in that it restricts the number of homes that you can put in to our most vulnerable high-risk fire areas. And to me it’s really, really important for developers and ultimately the board of supervisors to uphold that general plan.

Q: So you have been one of the ones that’s been pushing for a coordinated fire authority most strongly ever since the 2007 fires. If you had your way, what more progress would you like to see?

A: Well I think one of the areas we really need to work on is how to maintain and sustain our reserve corps. There’s a high turnover with our reserves because many of them come from out of San Diego County, Huntington Beach up north of our county, just to get the training. And then, we do such a good job of training them they serve us in the County Fire Authority for a period of time and then other departments hire them away. That will continue to become a challenge. The model is really good. But eventually I can see us having more professional firefighters where we’re going to have be paying full time or we’re going to have to up the ante and pay our reserves more of a stipend than they’re getting now. Because that’s one of the issues that needs to get resolved and it’s probably a money problem.

Q: Do you have sleepless nights worrying if we have got enough protection for wildfire?

Jacob: Well, we’ll never prevent another big fire. Never. And we would never, no matter how much money we spend have enough resources to stop another major firestorm. It’s just the nature of the area we live in. It’s a high-risk fire environment. And where we have those factors with Santa Ana winds, we have a lot of vegetation, we have the dryness in there, that sets up those unique conditions for a major fire storm. So all we can do is our best at this point. As a government agency and also as landowners we need to do our part too because preparedness starts with us.

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