Was San Diego ready?

Today, Carson and Rider open their debate by assessing the preparedness and response of San Diego. Later this week they'll discuss whether public policy should encourage more or less risky behavior, when and if the Federal should have a role in disaster management and more.

A failure to prepareBy Richard Carson

San Diego is miserly when spending on fire protection, particularly given its fire-prone location. The 2003 Cedar fire drove this reality home, yet little has really changed. On the eve of the 2007 fires, San Diego had the same number of firefighters as it did four years ago, in spite of population growth and a firefighter-per-capita rate half that of many other major cities. San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman quit in 2006 over the city's failure to provide the additional resources he thought necessary to protect its residents. A most prophetic Voice of San Diego article by Will Carless, "Wildfire Preparedness Stills Shows Shortcomings," appeared in July.

Two main factors are behind San Diego politicians' failure to adequately protect their city before last week's disaster. The first was a proclivity to treat the Cedar fire as a freak event for which no amount of local firefighting resources would ever be able to cope. The same "perfect storm" line is being used with the 2007 fires, inadvertently illustrating the point that these large-scale fires are actually regular events in Southern California.

The second is that San Diego's pension fund scandal has effectively gutted its ability to increase spending in response to the increasing fire threat. The public bought into belt-tightening as the way to deal with the pension fund issue and believed that public safety was still being protected. Politicians have been afraid to level with the public and reluctant to impose large impact fees on developers, whose ever-growing expansion into fire country is the root source of many of the problems.

When politicians fail to act, ballot measures often follow. However, a measure that would have increased resources for firefighting by increasing the hotel tax was soundly defeated. It was seen a subterfuge to increase the budgets of particular non-fire related operations, despite the firefighting teaser. The League of Women Voters and other groups that support improving San Diego's firefighting capacity came out against the proposition due to the charade.

The vast majority of the time San Diego gets by fine and runs an efficient firefighting operation. San Diego is able to call upon Cal Fire and surrounding fire departments to help put out the occasional brush fires that threaten its periphery.

This time San Diego was woefully outgunned, with no workable plan to bring in firefighting resources from outside the county in time to stop a runaway fire. New Fire Chief Tracy Jarman was quoted in a Los Angeles Times article as saying: "We're stretched about as thin as we could possibly be." The orderly evacuation of more than half a million people is something San Diegans should be rightly proud of. It is, however, the best indication that efforts to stop the fire before it hit urban areas failed.

The impression deliberately fostered by politicians is that nothing could stop the houses from being engulfed in flames as the fire roared through. Some houses have indeed been destroyed in this manner. Many, though, are burned down, one by one, by smaller fires that creep up canyons and go down streets well after the main body of the conflagration has moved on. This is the sort of fire that San Diego firefighters know how to deal with. San Diego Fire Captain Lisa Blake summed it up best: "We have more houses burning than we have people and engine companies to fight them. A lot of people are going to lose their homes today."

Bowman had estimated it would take $100 million to build and equip the 20 new fire stations San Diego needs to protect itself, and $40 million annually to run them. In light of losses in excess of $1 billion from the 2007 fires, the likelihood of homeowners facing much higher insurance rates from the failure to stop them, and the prospect of future fires, San Diego politicians may have made a bad deal on the public's behalf.

Richard Carson is an environmental and natural resource economist at the University of California, San Diego, where he studies natural disasters, among other things.

Think outside the taxBy Richard Rider
Professor Carson,

I think you could have shortened your opening essay to two words — "more money." Hardly a new idea, but certainly an ineffective one.

Spending hundreds of millions of dollars to expand the city of San Diego's professional firefighting force to fight a major fire event that happens once every four to 20 years is madness. As it now stands, professional city firefighters spend only 3% to 4% of their average shift actually fighting fires. What will the hundreds of additional firefighters be doing 24/7, 365 days a year between those rare, huge brush fires? Besides getting paid, that is?

And even then, another 300 to 400 city firefighters would not have stopped the Santa Ana wind-driven fires — no way. With TEN times as many firefighters brought in, we were not able to stop such fires during the full fury of the winds. Professor, your extra city firefighters would have saved some additional structures, but there are far less expensive ways to do that.As the cliché says, it's time to think outside the box.

At least you and I agree on one point — few homes immediately burn down when a brush fire roars by a subdivision. Indeed, most San Diego homes burned not from roaring fires but from the EMBERS from fires — fires sometimes a mile away. A glowing ember settles in a bush beside an abandoned home, the bush slowly catches fire, and eventually the flames spread to the house. Wooden roofs used to be a prime ignition point, but few such flammable structures remain.

Aside from better and more prompt use of air support (we'll be covering that scandalous screw-up in a later exchange), there are other options to consider:

1. San Diego County is rather unique in that it has THOUSANDS of trained government firefighters ready and eager to fight the blazes on short notice — but they are never used. Every Navy sailor, officer and enlisted, has received at least rudimentary training in fighting fires. Moreover, the ships and shore stations have TONS of firefighting equipment — masks, clothing gear, portable pumps and enough fire hose to reach to Kansas.

In addition, although Marines are not trained firefighters, they are more fit: ideal for defending structures from ember-fires using garden hoses, shovels, buckets of water and wet blankets.

Would the military provide ground firefighting assistance if asked? In a heartbeat! The brass would love the positive publicity, and the sailors and Marines would relish the opportunity to fight fires.

2. We have volunteer city and county reserve police officers. Why not a volunteer reserve firefighter corps as well? This option is common around the world. For a relatively small cost in equipment and basic training, we could have thousands of motivated citizens fighting fire, especially the ember fires. Some could even be trained to man small, simple firetrucks.

Outlandish? Not hardly. Three out of four trained firefighters in the U.S. are volunteers. People LOVE to be firefighters.

3. End mandatory evacuations, especially in suburban areas. It's un-American to order people to abandon their homes when clearly firefighters cannot defend most abandoned abodes from fires. Instead, make timely evacuations voluntary, leaving to the individual the final decision to stay or go.

Government should be providing advice, training and perhaps even hoses for willing homeowners who want to stay and fight. Over and over, suburban residents who defied evacuation orders in the 2003 and 2007 fires, and remained behind to fight the threat, were able to save their homes. Plus, they often saved nearby homes with simple firefighting tools and garden hoses. Apparently, not a single such suburban lawbreaker died.

Professor, all you can come up with is higher taxes. Believe me, in San Diego — the nut-ball public employee pension capital of the world — that idea ain't gonna fly.

Any tax increase is in reality a pension tax for the benefit of city employees. And the citizens know it. You should come up with a better solution than "more money."

Richard Rider is chairman of San Diego Tax Fighters, a grass-roots taxpayer organization. A businessman and retired Navy Reserve commander, Rider has written dozens of ballot arguments against raising taxes and issuing municipal bonds.

Next day's Dust-Up >>
Day 1  |  Day 2  |  Day 3

Copyright © 2018, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World