Canyon Fire Panel Urges Buying Copter

Times Staff Writer

A San Diego citizens group formed after last summer's Normal Heights fire has recommended that the city purchase new equipment to combat canyon blazes, launch an aggressive fire prevention campaign and issue a new, tougher brush-removal ordinance for private and public land.

In a 16-page report released Wednesday, the task force headed by Councilwoman Gloria McColl urged the city to buy a new helicopter and mobile communications unit for the Fire Department and use existing city-owned heavy bulldozing equipment in emergencies.

According to the report, the burned Normal Heights area will be reseeded during the week of Nov. 18 and damaged sidewalks, curbs and 70 trees will be replaced by the end of the year.

The June 30 blaze, the worst in the city's history, destroyed 69 homes and severely damaged dozens of others. The 18-member group, called the Canyon Rim Fire Prevention Ad Hoc Task Force, was established July 16 to review how city firefighters handled the blaze and suggest ways to prevent and improve the fighting of similar fires.

McColl said she was "extremely pleased" with the task force's recommendations. "What it's going to do is make this a much safer city for all San Diegans," McColl said.

The report did not address the lengthy delay in the arrival of California Department of Forestry air tankers after city fire officials had requested them. The tankers were not sent to Normal Heights for several hours because a city dispatcher failed to properly request assistance, according to CDF officials.

The task force recommended that the city continue working with CDF and ensure that "the air tanker ordering system is as efficient as possible." It also suggested that city officials work with the National Guard and the state Office of Emergency Services to reduce response times for military air tankers.

San Diego Fire Chief Roger Phillips praised the task force report, saying that the department currently does not have a helicopter to fight fires.

"One helicopter could make a difference," Phillips said. "If a helicopter would have been on the Normal Heights fire within the first five minutes and made a couple of quick drops, it might have changed the whole complexion of that thing."

Phillips said he was "not crazy" about a proposed city ordinance governing brush management. Instead, he said, he favored a more rigorous approach to clearing city land, open space and private property.

"In my mind, the only reasonable and logical way to prevent a repeat of the Normal Heights disaster is through a brush management ordinance," Phillips said.

McColl said that the most important area of the report concerns the clearing of weeds and shrubs. City ordinances currently limit enforcement of the weed abatement program to property with slopes that have grades less than 25%. This has left the city's canyons free of any attempts to clear dangerous brush, which fuels fires.

The report calls for controlled burns to be used where possible to reduce the amount of shrubbery.

Other recommendations include:

- Forcing private landowners to take care of weed problems. If they refuse, the city should use a private contractor to clear the land and bill the property owner.

- Studying the possibility of amending the city hillside review ordinance to require that any new construction on canyon rims be set back a minimum 100 feet to reduce fire danger.

- Conducting a community awareness program through radio and television public service announcements.

- Purchasing hand-held radios for field-to-base communication during major emergencies.

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