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Are We Prepared for the Next Wildfire?

Are We Prepared for the Next Wildfire?
The images of the Station Fire burning in Los Angeles are all too familiar to San Diego residents. We were reminded this week of how much a threat wildfires pose to Southern California.

GLORIA PENNER (Host): I'm Gloria Penner. I'm joined by the editors at the roundtable These Days in San Diego. Today we'll look into San Diego's readiness to fight wildfires, California's plans to release prisoners and the state's record unemployment rate on this Labor Day weekend. The editors with me today are Alisa Joyce Barba, Western Bureau Chief for NPR News. It is really good to see you, Alisa.

ALISA JOYCE BARBA (Western Bureau Chief, NPR News): It's good to be here, Gloria. Thank you.


PENNER: You're welcome. David Rolland, editor of San Diego CityBeat, and welcome back to you, David.

DAVID ROLLAND (Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Thanks very much, Gloria. Appreciate you being – me being here.

PENNER: Of course. And Barbara Bry, opinion editor for I got it right this time, Barbara.

BARBARA BRY (Opinion Editor, Yeah, thank you, Gloria. It's great to start my Labor Day weekend with you.

PENNER: Good. Glad you could be here, too. Our number is 1-888-895-5727, that's so you can join us. That's 895-KPBS. Well, huge fires continue to ravage the Angeles National Forest in northern Los Angeles, and the rugged terrain in the San Gabriel wilderness. The Station Fire is now determined to be deliberately set. Thousands have been evacuated and raised concerns about a possible spread toward communities including Pasadena and Sierra Madre. San Diego officials are taking heed. Alisa, the Santa Ana winds have not yet struck and it's early in the season for such destructive and widespread fires. Is this a forewarning for us in San Diego as October approaches?


BARBA: It's always a forewarning. I mean, nobody's who's felt the temperatures, I think, for the last week has any doubt that this could be a potentially very, very serious fire season. Thank God the Santa Ana winds haven't kicked in as well. I mean, it's been sweltering. You know, I think anybody who's lived here through the major fires over the last, you know, what is it, ten years, four or five years, you know you get this premonition in the air. You feel the closeness of the air and then the winds come and then – and then it begins to happen. I think Los Angeles – it's interesting. This fire that, you know, has been on the edge of Los Angeles has really affected people there, I think, in the same ways that the 2007 fire affected us. It was scary up there. The air quality and the sense of the flames right on the edge of the city was a very big deal.

PENNER: Yeah, I've seen some pictures and they really are horrendous.

BARBA: Umm-hmm.

PENNER: You see flames, it looks almost as though it's at the end of somebody's street. And that's kind of frightening. I'm wondering how much death and destruction there's been so far north of us.

BARBA: You know, it hasn't been bad. It really – I mean, nothing compared to what happened in 2007 down here. I spoke, frankly, with KPBS reporter Alison St John when she was up there covering it a couple days ago, and she said it was remarkable to see the skill with which these firefighters were setting the backfires, were actually protecting, you know, vast communities. I mean, how many houses, I think, you know, 67 houses – 2 firefighters killed, and 67 houses destroyed. I mean, that's less that what was destroyed up in Acton, in northern California, earlier this week. So for the scale of this fire, you know, 160-170,000 acres, it's amazing how little was destroyed in terms of human habitation.

PENNER: Well, Alison St John is actually going to be on San Diego Week on KPBS-TV tonight at 7:00. She's going to talk about her experience and show some pictures of the fire so…

BARBA: Excellent.

PENNER: …I urge people to watch that at seven o'clock tonight. So, David, when you hear the reports that we heard this morning, that that Station Fire was deliberately set and there's now a homicide investigation going on up there, does that sort of put a different light on the whole concept of fire in Los Angeles. Rather than one, when you think of a fire being sort of a natural – coming from natural causes, you know, like lightning?

ROLLAND: I don't know, I kind of think—and maybe I'm just cynical—but I think, you know, human – human flaws are sort of a natural occurrence, you know. People are – people do bad things and they're going to continue to do bad things until the end of time, I'm afraid to say. You know, what makes it worse obviously – so, I don't – to answer your question, I don't – No, it doesn't struck me – strike me any different, you know, any different light. You know, what makes it worse is the fact that, you know, that we are enduring, you know, a long period of drought and that's what's going to make these fires inevitable. And, you know, there's enough dry fuel out there that it's going to happen and, you know, I fully expect it to – Now, I fully expect it to happen here again. You know, just the other day, I think it might've been Sunday when I was returning from a weekend in Big Bear, you know, I got out of my car and it – there was a little bit of a wind, you know, and it was hot. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon. It sort of felt like Indian summer, you know, and I just, you know, you kind of – you sort of have that feeling that it might be coming.

PENNER: Okay, well let me ask our listeners about that. Do you share David's sentiments, two sentiments actually. Number one, you know, doesn't matter whether this is a deliberately set fire or whether it's a fire from natural causes, it's still fire. Or do you feel differently when you hear that somebody actually set out to have a fire burn in the Los Angeles area? And are you terribly concerned when you feel those winds whip up now in San Diego, even a little bit, that, oh-oh, the Santa Ana is coming. Our number's 1-888-895-5727, 895-KPBS. I'd like to get your reaction. Barbara Bry, California is reeling, still reeling under its budget problems. There've been cuts in services, cash is in short supply. More cuts are anticipated. Do you feel that this has affected the state's ability to fight giant fires, especially if they spread even beyond where they now are in Los Angeles and San Bernardino?

BRY: Yeah, Gloria, clearly it's going to impact our ability to fight giant fires. The state budget did cut fire services around the state and, even more importantly, in San Diego we spend less per capita on fire services than Los Angeles and Orange County, and this gap has widened in the last few years. And this is according to a report by the National University Institute on Public Policy Research, and so I think we are even more vulnerable in San Diego, you know, should a big fire strike here.

PENNER: Well, we're talking right now the Station Fire, Barbara, has cost more than $21 million to fight. I mean, that's pretty huge and it's coming right out of the state coffers.

BRY: Right, and this is probably money that the state didn't budget for and…

BARBA: No, that's not actually – I'm sorry.

PENNER: Alisa.

BARBA: That's not true. They did. There's like $182 million budgeted but we've spent a huge chunk of it already, that's the problem. But there is money in the budget to fight fires and Schwarzenegger and the legislators say that we are, you know, that this is not going to be an issue, that our budget problems are not going to translate into an inability to fight fires but at some point we do run out of money. But there is a budget for it.

PENNER: So, do – I – Do you believe that? Do you believe that this is not going to impede our ability to fight fires?

BARBA: It's not – You know, the issue is – I think the issue is preparedness. It's how many fire trucks do we have, how many big water tankers do we have, how many helicopters do we have? And that is, you know, preparation ahead of time. In terms of the money to fight the fires at any given time, we have a $500 million reserve budget as well that we can dip into if, you know, if Armageddon comes and we have to fight and we need to bring firefighters in from Australia or New Zealand, the money's there to bring that kind of stuff in there. But the fact is, is we haven't done the preparation ahead of time to have the kind of resources we need to fight really effectively, I think.

PENNER: David.

ROLLAND: Yeah, I was going to say, that sort of underscores, you know, that California's budget problems underscores the need for people to take personal responsibility here. Not to sound like Smokey the Bear here but, I mean, preparation – Look, you know, the firefighters know what they're doing when they get these backcountry blazes that come up, abut against communities. They don't fight those fires, they don't try to put those fires out, they try to simply create a line between, you know, the back country and civilization, you know. And it's really just a matter of staying – It's a matter of how fast that fire moves and how, you know, how quickly they can get in front of it and between, you know, homes and communities and whatnot. And it just makes it so much easier for them if these communities protect themselves to begin with by – with defensible space and all that.

PENNER: Barbara, I'll get back to you in a minute. But let's hear from Ellen in San Carlos. She wants to join the conversation. Hi, Ellen, you're on with the editors.

ELLEN (Caller, San Carlos): Can you hear me?

PENNER: Yes, perfectly.

ELLEN: Oh, okay. First of all, I think it is worse if somebody sets it deliberately because that fire might not have happened if somebody didn't set it deliberately. And what upsets me more than anything is the media, especially TV, saying, oh, there's a Santa Ana; oh, fire is going to come; oh, there's the – we're ready for the fire season, it's definitely going to happen. And I think that all those crazies who do watch TV and listen to other media get stirred up and say, hey, this is my opportunity


PENNER: All right, go ahead, Alisa Joyce Barba.

BARBA: I don't think that there's any doubt that as we kind of, you know, in the media or whomever, the drumbeat begins. It's fire season, it's fire season, temperatures are going to be high this weekend, the winds are going to blow. There is absolutely no doubt that the people who are arsonists, people who want to set fires see that as an opportunity. We've seen that in San Diego. We've seen it in L.A., you know, countless times over the last five years.

PENNER: So what do you suggest, Alisa? That we stop reporting on it? That seems to be what Ellen is suggesting.

BARBA: Well…

ROLLAND: Ban the news.

PENNER: What is that? Ban the news?

BRY: Well, I think at…

PENNER: Barbara.

BRY: …the same time, I think, though, we need to tell people that, you know, with, you know, high temperatures and the possibility of Santa Ana winds, fire is a possibility and I think we can focus on prevention and preparedness. And I know that, you know, up in Rancho Bernardo, which has been devastated by fires in the past, you know, the community is coming together in terms of, you know, coming up with a community preparedness plan in – both in terms of prevention and, you know, in the event that a disaster should strike.

PENNER: Our number is 1-888-895-5727. Do you feel that San Diego is sufficiently prepared to fight fires this year considering the history that we had in 2007? Let's hear from Bobbi in La Jolla. Bobbi, you're on with the editors.

BOBBI (Caller, La Jolla): Hi, Gloria, thanks for taking my call.


BOBBI: I am – Actually, your previous speaker just mentioned this but what I'm concerned about is property owner preparedness and I don't think there's been enough focus on that. I think that – I think it should be clearer what we can, or maybe even what we should, be doing. For example, La Jolla, where I live, is inundated with eucalyptus trees and they're highly flammable. It scares me that there's one down in the bottom of my canyon. Also, removing plants that are right next to homes, especially homes that are near forests and in highly flammable areas like in east county. Should we clear spaces around them? I think that that is something that the city should be more vocal about, the county should be more vocal about. What should we do to help prevent fires? And also that plays into SDG&E and its issue about liability.

PENNER: Umm-hmm.

BOBBI: I don't think – I think it's outrageous that they want to be making all of these big gains and theirs sucks and yet put the problem back on our backs. But maybe something could be worked out where you say, look, you're liable if you have this, this or this around your property, and I don't know. It's just a question.

PENNER: What Bobbi is talking about, I think, is that right in the middle of this fire horror, SDG&E tells us it wants to raise rates to pay for the higher insurance costs that resulted from the $740 million claims from the 2007 wildfires that they were liable for, and to pass on the costs for uninsured losses. Let's talk for a moment about what Bobbi has to say. David, what do you think? Is this going to set off a public relations backlash?

ROLLAND: For whom?


ROLLAND: Well, yeah, I mean, SDG&E is always – always vulnerable to public relations problems. But, no, it just – the caller reminds me, you know, of, you know, the fact that we – that we plan our communities in such a way that we leave ourselves vulnerable to natural disasters, whether it be, you know, people building in a flood plain or in the back country, you know, where it's – where it's, you know, in places where it's dry and vulnerable to drought. You know, and SDG&E, like Michael Shames, you know, the…


ROLLAND: Yeah, exactly. The Utility Consumer Action Network director, you know, was quoted recently as saying, well, you know, we have – you know, we have an energy system where we need to convey energy over, you know, vast distances and instead of really planning locally where we have sort of a more sustainable energy system, you know, where we have all these distribution lines, and problems are going to happen when we're in – we're in fire prone areas.

PENNER: Okay, well we're going to come back to this. We're going to take more of your calls. There's still a lot to talk about because this week the mayor said that brush has been cleared, that the reserve fire engine fleet is increased, and he gave us all kinds of reasons to take heart. I'd like to know whether you're taking heart as we approach the fire season. This is the Editors Roundtable. I'm Gloria Penner.

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PENNER: I'm Gloria Penner and this is the Editors Roundtable. We're talking about the fire season. We look to the north, we look to Los Angeles, what's happening there, and wonder whether San Diego is sufficiently prepared, whether you are sufficiently prepared and the property that you occupy, to get ready for fire season. Our number is 1-888-895-5727. And with me at the roundtable, we have Barbara Bry from, and Western Bureau Chief for NPR News is Alisa Joyce Barba. David Rolland from San Diego CityBeat, and of course you, when you call in. I just wanted to point out one thing and that was the mayor did have a press conference this week and he made it sound pretty good. Brush has been cleared, the reserve fire engine fleet is increased, there's a second full time firefighting helicopter, and the mayor did encourage residents to create defensible space around their homes. So, Alisa, has he covered all the bases?

BARBA: You know, Gloria, I don't think he has. I think that – I mean, we should all be encouraged that there's two more fire trucks, we should be encouraged that there's another helicopter but at the same time, I mean, I seem to remember back in 2007 the issues had to do with communication between different fire departments, it had to do with coordination between different fire departments, and it had to do with a whole lot of other vastly more complicated issues than an extra fire truck. And I don't think – I certainly didn't see the local media having a critical assessment of his assessment of our preparation and I don't think we've really got one.

PENNER: Well, I found it interesting – there was a report that was issued last year from the San Diego Public Policy Institute and they're going to issue a new one this year. And at that point, they said that per capita spending on fires and fire protection and emergency medical services in the last three years, the San Diego region spent significantly less than either Orange County or Los Angeles County on a per capita basis, and the gap is growing wider. So that's kind of concerning, isn't it? I mean, David, aren't you concerned about that? David, you're looking worried.

ROLLAND: I'm always concerned when it – when we’re talking about budgets. I mean, we have a popu – an electorate that is absolutely averse to raising any kind of revenue to do anything we need to do, and we're in the middle of a recession where all kinds of tax revenues are down. So there's a concern across the board. It's not just fire protection, it's everything.

PENNER: All right, let's hear from Roger in North Park. Roger, you're on with the editors.

ROGER (Caller, North Park): Thank you for having me. My wife and family live in Ramona for fourteen years, San Diego Country Estates. We went through the 2003 fire on the 25th of October, burned completely around us, 12 homes on our block. We stayed and I shot water on it all night. And we were there by ourselves. The – My local CHP tried to bring in the Cal Fire and the Cal Fire told us they would not drive the extra mile from Ramona Oaks Park up to our area even though there was clear – a full on – a road easy to get to…

PENNER: Roger, I think we got your point and I would love to have you tell us more of the story but your telephone is really bad. So, I'm sorry about that. I would love to have heard what you had to say but…

ROLLAND: He sounds like he's on the Death Star.

PENNER: Oh, God, don't say that. All right, Alisa, I mean, Cal Fire, not responsive?

BARBA: Yeah, I don't know the circumstances of that. I guess I am always struck – I mean, I agree with David at, you know, the basic miserliness of the San Diego Electric (sic) but I'm always struck by the situation that we're in where we have a vast coastal population that, for the most part, is not threatened by fire, and then an increasing inland population that is. And it just seems to me that there's a – if you live in Ramona, you should have to pay more to pay for fire protection. I mean, I think that – I mean, I can say that because I live in Point Loma and I'm sorry and I hope that doesn't make everybody really angry. But I do think that if you choose to build and live in the back country where there is historically, I mean, for millennium, a fire danger, I think you have to take that on as a risk. And whether that means you have to put solar panels on your house so that you don't have electricity lines going through your yard that are going to cut – that's one thing. Defensible space, everybody knows you need 100 yards of defensible space. Nobody needs to be told that anymore, though it does need to be drummed into your head. But I mean these are kinds of things that you have to take responsibility for and I think you have to take financial responsibility for.

PENNER: I think underlying what he was trying to tell us is that there's a difference between fighting fires in L.A…

BARBA: Umm-hmm.

PENNER: …and the way San Diego's fires were fought, that there's perhaps more responsiveness in L.A. and perhaps not in San Diego.

BRY: Well, they spend more money in L.A. per capita than we do in San Diego. Considerably more.

PENNER: So that's – that was the point, I guess, of…

BRY: Yeah.

PENNER: …the numbers I was giving earlier.

BRY: Umm-hmm.

PENNER: That, yes, they do. And that does make a difference in being protected.

BRY: It has to make a difference and, you know, the new report will be out Wednesday and it'll be interesting to see if the gap has widened further.

PENNER: Okay, well, let's get – take one more call on this. And this is from Laura in San Diego. Laura, you're on with the editors.

LAURA (Caller, San Diego): Hi. Can you hear me?

PENNER: Absolutely. You have a lovely telephone.

LAURA: Okay, well I'm actually in my car. I live in Scripps Ranch and I – my comment, I guess, is on the fact that – well, first of all, I just heard the last commenter and I think we have to remember that back in 2003 there were huge fires in L.A. and our preparedness was way down that weekend. I mean, there were not a lot of people on call. I think they were up in L.A. But, actually, my comment is about preparedness and the intentional setting of fires. I think we need to really expect that to happen and be prepared, that's the whole point. And whether it's community meetings where we sit down and people learn about what to look for, suspicious activity, reporting small fires, those kinds of things, I think. We need to – It's not so much that it doesn't matter whether it's set intentionally or not, it certainly does. We should really expect it because people are out there and they'll do it.

PENNER: Okay, thank you. A final comment, Alisa?

BARBA: Well, I totally agree. I think that that's inevitable especially now. It's going to become bigger and better, and I do think that communities that live on the edge of the fires, Scripps Ranch, Rancho Bernardo, Poway, Ramona, that they need to have meetings. People need to know evacuation routes. They need to understand and be fined if they don't create defensible space. They need to evacuate when told. I mean, this has to be just a standard, you know, thing about living in California.

PENNER: I'm going to leave you with one thought. Two days ago I was driving behind a car and the driver threw a lit cigarette out of the window of the car and it rolled and I saw the sparks fly. And I followed the driver, took the license plate number, memorized it, and called the Highway Patrol when I got into my office. I didn't get a sense of, you know, oh, thank you for calling, I'm glad, we'll follow up. All they did was take the information and say goodbye. So I'm not even sure that they're following up on calls when you do see a dangerous action like that because in this weather you sure don't want to have lit cigarettes thrown out of cars.

ROLLAND: Well, maybe you should give the person's license plate here on the radio and perhaps you can ask citizens to take – take matters into their own hands.

PENNER: Oh, well, this – you know, I'd love to be able to use this program to do things like that but I think that my boss wouldn't like it. So let me move on.