Deadly Fires Stir Up San Diego Politics

Times Staff Writers

Fire prevention has emerged as the dominant political issue as officials trade accusations over whether runaway growth and a lack of firefighting resources had left the county vulnerable to the disastrous fires.

The fires, which killed 18 and burned 2,200 homes here, are taking center stage just as the San Diego mayoral campaign gets underway and voters prepare to possibly consider two ballot measures, one of which focuses on limiting growth, the other on raising money to purchase what would be the county government's first helicopters dedicated to firefighting.

"This is not going to fade," said political consultant Cynthia Vicknair. "We're going to see the scars on the land for a long time."

Several advocacy groups and would-be San Diego mayoral candidates plan to poll voters to determine the depth of their anger over the fires and whether they are likely to change their long-standing opposition to tax increases and consolidation of local fire districts.

At the same time, San Diego officials find themselves on the defensive as residents question whether San Diego was adequately prepared for the fire. Some officials, who have tried to focus the blame on others, contend that Gov. Gray Davis didn't provide enough firefighting help in the first hours of the blazes and that environmental laws prevented the kind of aggressive brush clearance that might have slowed the fires.

But some political experts believe those arguments will not go far enough with voters.

"Failure in the past to adequately support fire protection, particularly aerial assets, is going to come back to burn a lot of politicians," said consultant John Dadian.

Political debates here normally proceed slowly, but the fires have added a sense of urgency. The San Diego City Council discussed the helicopter issue Monday, the Port Commission discussed it Tuesday, and the county Board of Supervisors expects to discuss it today.

On Tuesday, Supervisor Ron Roberts, long a supporter of having a fire helicopter, asked Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger to back a plan to ask countywide voters to endorse a parcel tax to fund a fleet of firefighting helicopters. To have a countywide vote on a parcel tax to fund helicopters, the Board of Supervisors needs a waiver of state law from the state Legislature.

Roberts is considering a challenge to San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy in the March primary. Banker and Port Commission member Peter Q. Davis has already announced his plans to run against Murphy with fire protection, particularly helicopters, a major issue.

Beyond the topics of helicopters and the city of San Diego's chronically lean funding of its Fire Department, fire protection also promises to be central to a proposed countywide ballot measure to limit development in the backcountry, where the fire fatalities occurred.

The initiative's sponsor, a rancher named Duncan McFetridge, said the large-scale destruction of homes had been the result of "irresponsible" planning by county supervisors, who allowed homes to be built in remote areas without adequate fire protection.

McFetridge has gathered enough signatures to have the measure on the ballot. The timing of the vote, however, will be determined by supervisors.

At a meeting today, the supervisors are set to discuss both the slow-growth measure and Roberts' suggestion for a regional fire services district.

"It was made painfully clear by the recent wildfires that the San Diego region is under-equipped to deal with a major fire emergency," Roberts said in a memo to other supervisors.

If the slow-growth measure and the helicopter tax are both put on the March ballot, voters could be confronted with two different theories of blame on what allowed the fires to become so destructive: the lack of helicopters or the proliferation of houses.

San Diego County is the only large county in the state without a countywide fire department, and the city has a lower ratio of firefighters to residents than most big cities in the country. Fire protection in the county is governed by 20-plus fire districts, many of which rely on volunteers and aging equipment.

McFetridge, a resident of Descanso in eastern San Diego County, said that the fire had forced the county to spread fire-fighting resources needlessly thin to defend distant homes and neighborhoods.

"Absolutely, some of those houses should never have been built," McFetridge said, using San Diego Country Estates outside Ramona as an example.

Instead of building more freeways and parking lots to connect ever more distant residential communities, McFetridge insisted, the supervisors should focus on how to squeeze more out of the county's already developed urban areas.

"The board has proven itself over the years and decades to be totally irresponsible on this issue," he said.

The "Rural Lands Initiative," would severely limit the number of structures that could be built on rural properties.

But Keith Hansen, editor of the Ramona Sentinel, predicted that the measure would not be favored by rural residents, despite the fires.

"We've chosen to live up here in the backcountry and that's no one else's business," he said. "...Don't tell us that if we own 160 acres that we can only build on 10 of them because you want to see open land. If you want to see open land, buy some."

He rejected the fire protection aspect of McFetridge's argument.

"Do we stop living because there is a chance of disaster?" Hansen said. "That's simplistic, asinine thinking."

Part of the independent backcountry spirit lauded by Hansen is a preference for local fire districts. Local-control advocates have defeated numerous attempts at consolidating districts to provide greater resources, coordination and equipment.

The recent fires, Roberts said, might have dissolved some of that opposition. A district run by fire chiefs to administer the helicopter fleet could be the forerunner of a countywide department, he added.

"I think we've got at least some push for some major consolidation," he said. "I think as people return to those burned-out areas, they're going to be overwhelmed."

The fires were "something that should never be repeated," he said.

The issue of fire protection, particularly the city's lack of a full-time firefighting helicopter, has put Murphy on the defensive as he faces the reelection campaign.

Even before the fires erupted, mayoral candidate Davis had criticized Murphy for allowing the city's four-month lease on a firefighting helicopter to lapse. The lease lapsed just days before the Cedar fire exploded and began racing toward the Scripps Ranch and Tierrasanta neighborhoods of the city, where more than 350 homes were destroyed.

Murphy, a former Superior Court judge known for a serious demeanor and a low-key personality, has been effusive in praise of San Diego firefighters for saving "thousands of homes" and helping prevent any loss of life within the city limits. "It could have been far worse," he said.

On the issue of helicopters, he said that the fires demonstrate the need for such a helicopter, but added that city taxpayers should not foot the entire bill.

Murphy's more upbeat analysis of the response of local fire agencies has been supported by Fire Chief Jeff Bowman, who, for example, has declined to join county officials in blasting the California Department of Forestry for refusing to let Navy helicopters dump water on the fire in its early stages.

Bowman said that, "it's time for this city to heal -- not a time to do criticism."

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