Although the May wildfires showed that San Diego County has made significant progress in upgrading its firefighting capability, greater improvements are needed as the region faces the probability of “future destructive fires,” a report submitted Tuesday to the county Board of Supervisors warned.
An “after-action” report by the county’s Office of Emergency Services recommended a third helicopter, better software to update fire-perimeter maps and more county employees assigned to disaster relief when fire strikes, among other things.
The recommendations appeared to receive a positive response from the supervisors. Any decision was delayed until after a session is held within the next 45 days with officials from other cities and agencies to develop a regional response.
A dozen fires struck the northern section of the county in May, destroying several dozen homes in Carlsbad and San Marcos, and burning thousands of acres. Fires also struck Camp Pendleton and the adjacent Naval Weapons Station Fallbrook.
No fatalities have been confirmed although the county medical examiner has yet to determine whether a migrant found in an encampment outside Carlsbad was burned to death or was already dead when the fire struck.
The May fires signaled a significant change from the fires in 2003 and 2007 when thousands of homes burned and the local response at times seemed inadequate. Fifteen persons were killed in the 2007 blaze.
"It wasn't that we were lucky this time," said Supervisor Ron Roberts. "We were far better prepared...Do we have room for improvement? You bet."
The report noted the county's vulnerability to wildfires:
"While San Diego is often rated as one of the best communities in the country to live, our residents understand that there is one major caveat that comes with that designation: San Diego is also one of the nation's communities most at risk to devastating wildfires."
Fire protection in San Diego County is a complex political and strategic issue. Alone among major counties in California, San Diego lacks a countywide fire department.
Coordination among dozens of local agencies, some of them staffed mainly with volunteers, was a vexing problem in 2003 and 2007. Relations among local agencies and Cal-Fire and the military were also strained.
Since the 2007 fire, the county established a fire authority to knit together dozens of agencies, mainly in the rural backcountry. An agreement was reached with the Navy and Marine Corps over use of their helicopters, and relations with CalFire have been improved.
In 2003, for example, there was a “total lack of coordination and cooperation,” said Supervisor Greg Cox. “We’ve come a long way.”
The 2003 and 2007 wildfires erupted in October in the backcountry during the so-called fire season when hot, dry winds can drive flames for miles. Fire experts say that the season is now nearly year-round, possibly due to climate change.
Even with the history of destructive fires, local voters have been loathe to raise taxes for fire protection.
A ballot measure in 2008 for a parcel tax to provide $27 million a year for better firefighting equipment failed.
Roberts noted the oddity of the voting patterns in that failed attempt: the measure was supported in Coronado where the danger of brush fires is slim but was defeated in areas of the county where the chances of brush fire are significant.
Calling in off-duty firefighters is of limited usefulness, he noted, because the county has enough vehicles and equipment for only one-third of firefighters at a given time.
“More can always be done to make us even better prepared to battle the next big fire [but] the county can’t work on this alone,” said Supervisors Chairwoman Dianne Jacob.
A workshop, she said, will provide an opportunity to draw up a list of recommendations “to improve our entire region’s fire protection system.”