San Diego Fire Warnings Were Repeatedly Ignored

Times Staff Writers

County officials have repeatedly been warned that too few firefighters combined with dry back-country brush and Santa Ana winds could produce uncontrollable wildfires nearly identical to those that killed 16 people and destroyed 2,469 homes last month.

Despite the warnings, local leaders and voters both failed to implement recommendations that fire officials said would help fight a massive wildfire.

A review of San Diego city and county records shows that fire officials over the last two decades have predicted that firefighters could be helpless to stop even a small brush fire because the region did not have enough firefighters and water-dropping helicopters.

The warnings came in reports from the fire agencies seeking more funding and in task force studies after previous wildfires. Voters have rejected repeated proposals for funding improved fire protection with increased taxes.

On Thursday, in the wake of the Cedar fire, Mayor Dick Murphy announced the formation of another commission to examine how to improve firefighting.

The task force will consider brush clearing, better communication and gear, more firefighters and better coordination with other departments -- the same issues that another task force examined after a 1985 blaze.

The Cedar and Paradise fires started in the kind of terrain where officials had warned that such disasters might begin. The blazes spread in the manner officials had predicted, exposing weaknesses long noted in the fire protection system.

"Those fires were both predicted and predictable," said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who has long pushed for improved fire services.

San Diego city fire officials were so concerned last year about the vulnerability of Scripps Ranch that they asked Bill Clayton, a division chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, for a study on how to defend the neighborhood from the flames.

Clayton produced a computer model of a blaze and foresaw with eerie accuracy the path that the Cedar fire, which destroyed more than 345 homes in Scripps Ranch, would take.

The Clayton report predicted that flames would race over hilly slopes, ignite the neighborhood's stately eucalyptus trees and destroy 250 to 300 homes before they could be contained.

That report was only the latest prediction of disaster.

In 1982, for example, then-Fire Chief Earle Roberts warned the City Council that San Diego was playing "Russian roulette" by not providing more resources to protect Scripps Ranch from a wildfire that would start in remote rural areas and race southward.

He predicted the time the city would be most vulnerable: on the weekends when staffing levels were at their lowest in the San Diego Fire Department. The Cedar fire erupted on a Saturday afternoon and was destroying homes in Scripps Ranch and Tierrasanta by midday Sunday.

In 1984, Roberts, who had been hired from Phoenix to improve the San Diego Fire Department, abruptly resigned. He complained that his recommendations had been ignored by city officials and that he had been unable to get the attention of his boss, then-City Manager Ray Blair.

Roberts said the city had too few firefighters, an inadequate number of fire engines and a system that relied on overtime to keep fire stations fully staffed.

Many of the problems that he and others cited persist today.

Although several new fire stations have been built, including one in Scripps Ranch, the Fire Department still has one of the lowest ratios of firefighters to population of any major city in the country. In outlying areas, San Diego County relies on a patchwork of more than 60 fire agencies, some staffed by volunteers.

Twenty-one of 32 ballot measures to increase taxes to improve fire protection in the county since 1996 have failed -- several in areas devastated by the recent fires.

After a 1982 fire destroyed 500 apartments in Anaheim, San Diego's fire marshal at the time repeatedly told both officials and the media that his city could face a similar disaster.

The marshal, Charles Van Rickley, noted that attempts to upgrade fire codes and boost resources tend to falter as memories of the devastation wrought quickly fade.

"If you can get a regulation into the city the day after a disaster, fine," he told reporters. "But our experience is that, after 30 days, everybody has pretty well forgotten about it."

Within months of Van Rickley's warning, rural voters rejected two fire protection measures.

Three years later, several prominent businessmen and public officials formed the San Diego Regional Fire and Emergency Services Foundation to spread the word that the county was teetering on the edge of fire disaster. Having failed to change public opinion, the foundation disbanded in 1993 and gave the funds it had raised to a community group for dispersal to charities.

"It was so frustrating, because of an absolute lack of public interest in fire protection," said a foundation member, John A. Andersen, who was then police chief at UC San Diego. "Without a major incident to get people excited, nobody cared."

In 1996, after years of warnings about the fire threat in their isolated, brushy neighborhood, residents of Harbison Canyon, east of San Diego, were asked to approve a tax increase to improve resources. Voters overwhelmingly rejected the measure.

The Cedar fire destroyed 283 homes in Harbison Canyon -- roughly half of the community.

Harbison Canyon fire protection "historically has been shortchanged," said retired Chief Richard Durrell, who backed the 1996 measure. "This fire has got to change some attitudes."

In addition to warnings about the potential for a major fire, city and county officials have also received recommendations from commissions examining other wildfires that have hit in the last 20 years.

But relatively few of those recommendations have been carried out.

After the 1982 Anaheim fire, several San Diego City Council members suggested, in effect, banning shake-shingle roofs in the city.

Officials had long warned that such roofs can explode at the slightest exposure to wind-blown embers. Although some changes were made in codes involving roofs, shake-shingles were not banned.

Mayor Murphy said he hoped that one recommendation of the new task force would involve banning combustible roofs. But, he noted, "I haven't talked to the council yet" to see if a majority agrees.

A city task force formed after the 1985 Normal Heights fire, which damaged or destroyed 123 homes, recommended increased brush clearing, better communication gear, more firefighters and better coordination between the city and the state forestry department to ensure that aerial tankers were quickly available.

Changes were made in city procedures to ensure quicker responses to canyon fires, and city water mains were upgraded. But coordination with the forestry department continued to be problematic.

That report wasn't the only one to stress the need for more firefighting aircraft. In his report last year about fire danger in Scripps Ranch, the forestry department's Clayton said that "it is imperative, under these conditions, that a very strong and aggressive air and ground attack take place at the point of origin."

Despite this warning, the city allowed a four-month lease on a firefighting helicopter to lapse just days before the Cedar fire began. Since the blaze, the city has renewed the lease on a month-to-month basis.

After a fire last year in the Julian-Ranchita area burned 60,000 acres and destroyed 35 homes, the county Board of Supervisors formed a task force to look at ways to avoid a similar disaster.

The report, finished just weeks before the Cedar and Paradise fires, warned that, because of tall and brittle brush, 80% of the wild-land areas in the county would "burn explosively under typical periods of high fire danger."

The task force offered ideas that have long circulated, including stronger efforts to persuade property owners to clear brush and a plan for controlled burns. So far, the recommendations have yet to be considered.

"We've been given a second chance," community activist and attorney Michael Aguirre told the San Diego City Council last week as it reviewed the latest fires. "Let's not blow it."

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