Fired Up

by Carolyn Chase
February 25, 2002


T he history of California’s beautiful landscapes has been greatly shaped by the awesome power of fire. Yet as the region has grown, the power of fire is forgotten, and our own fire power surrendered.

    When the inevitable happens, people who aren’t trapped in the inferno – are forced to flee in fear and watch their property burn.

    We have a fatally combustible combination: impossible terrain, lack of Board restraint and no County Fire Department. Important public safety decision are being ceded to short term political turf wars, ideologies and zealous development pressures.

    The financial toll from the Gavilan Fire in Fallbrook last week has surpassed the $16 million mark with 43 families having their homes destroyed and with many others sustaining heavy damage. In 1996 more than 100 homes were lost in Harmony Grove, Elfin Forest, and Carlsbad. Firefighters have noted that last year's Viejas fire could have been a lot worse. When will we learn?

    Rich Hawkins, chief of Fire and Aviation for the Cleveland National Forest, commented that homes never should have been built in that pattern in that portion of Fallbrook in the first place. He added that that fire fighters "might have been able to save much more if the homes had been clustered together rather than islands in the scrub."

    However, this Board of Supervisors has not been willing to make house builders apply all the knowledge that has been developed about how to make a house – or a neighborhood - fireproof. If "human safety comes first," as some have trumpeted, then many developments would not be approved as-built in the first place. A Task Force met several years ago to study this issue and come up with recommendations which were ultimately ignored. Until jurisdictions set building and materials standards and enforce those requirements, firefighters will continue to risk their lives.

    In the mid-seventies, post Proposition 13, the County got out of the fire fighting business and contracted for services from the State California Department of Forestry (CDF) for a few years. Then, they cut that as well. Always ready to respond – and with little choice - local communities formed their own fire protection districts, but few resources were forthcoming.

    Unincorporated areas – often the most subject to rampaging fires and where they can move into urban areas as well as happened in the Harmony Grove fire – have numerous fire protection districts that run the gamut from small all-volunteer departments to better funded efforts in communities like Rancho Santa Fe. At the same time, there are redundancies that could be made much more efficient. But attaining efficiencies is impossible without a regional approach. And this requires getting over petty turf wars.

    In his State of the County speech last week, Supervisor Ron Roberts renewed his calls to support his "flying firetruck" proposal, whereby the county would obtain our region’s first large helicopter specifically set up for firefighting and other emergency rescues.

    Hoping for new support in the wake of the latest fire loses, Roberts’ proposal was originally voted on last May by the San Diego Service Authority for Freeway Emergencies. Fellow Supervisor Bill Horn voted against it and claimed there was no nexus between the proposed source of revenue – vehicle registration fees – and the proposed emergency services. Evidently, Supervisor Horn is unaware of the rising traffic on county roads and freeways – made even worse in many emergencies – and where life and death services can only be provided by air.

    Horn also attacked the proposal by restating his past turf objections that the City of San Diego wouldn’t share the helicopter and that "I think it ought to belong to the Sheriff's Department." During the redistricting process Horn pushed his plan that ignored all requests from fire districts to consolidate across district boundaries.

    Maybe we could just save some more taxpayer dollars and have the our Sheriff’s Deputies patrol our streets in fire trucks and they could respond to any and all emergency calls and we could really get rid of all those pesky fire fighters. You know, those are the guys that when people started driving airplanes into the World Trade Center and everyone was running out of the buildings they were the ones running up the fire escapes to rescue trapped victims. I don’t know about you, but I think, considering the times, we should keep those firefighter types around, and let them figure out how, when, and where to use this flying fire truck.

    The accusation that firefighting equipment would be mismanaged by the largest firefighting organization in the region is an gross insult and a improper politicization of a decision that should be based on the merits.

    Horn should also ask the people of Fallbrook if they feel that their $1 of vehicle license fees – paid regionally – that Horn wanted to "save them" under the guise of taxpayer relief would have been too much too much to apply for this kind of protection. I believe this can be properly called "penny wise and pound foolish."

    Security decisions should not be being made by politicians with a tendency to put other ideological considerations before the proper safety measures.

    Brian Fennessy, the Air Operations Coordinator for the San Diego Fire Department, has been working with Roberts on the helicopter proposal

    "Once people see what these helicopters can do, they want them," he added. "A few years ago, Los Angeles County floated a $45 million bond to buy five of these, and people overwhelmingly voted for them."

    All sides need to see the value of a coordinated and well-equipped regional network of fire fighting forces.

    Fire prevention ethics also have to spread to other County departments. Land use policies and enforcement that leads to fire prevention and defensible spaces are just as important as fighting the inevitable fires that will come. Firefighters are not only required to respond to emergencies, but can be proactive in prevention, education, and code enforcement. Taking this approach, we would become less dependent on the state for our local needs and eventually this would lead to lower insurance rates for those in the unincorporated communities.

    The County must realize its responsibilities for being in the fire fighting business. Fortunately, there are alternatives to Horn’s politics of polarization running in the March 5th primary. Challengers Patsy Fritz and Kevin Barnard would each be a better alternative. Barnard, with both a father and a brother who are firefighters – and who was put in the line of fire during the Harmony Grove conflagration - has proposed an annual funding source that gives our fire protection districts a consistent guarantee of funds.

    "We should support and equip our firefighters, and let them control how, when, and where to use this flying fire truck. We need to prepare our emergency and public safety services not on the day when "the big one hits", but long before. We need the County to get back into the fire fighting business, now!"

    Actually it’s hard to understand why they didn’t get back into it before the latest disaster. We need to ensure that communities are designed and built properly. We need to continue to move toward an integrated regional network and get over political turf wars.