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Ex-San Diego fire chief won’t say ‘I told you so . . .’

Former San Diego fire Chief Jeff Bowman, who repeatedly warned that his city wasn’t prepared to handle major fires, is out back of his house near Escondido at 7 a.m., watching the smoke come over a ridge and wondering if he’ll lose everything he’s got.

“I think I’m OK,” Bowman says, pointing out how he cleared the brush, picked rocky surroundings and built his hilltop ranch house with very little exposed wood.

His wife, Denise, is making coffee, and I ask if she’s nervous.

“I live with a fireman,” she says, so why worry? But their photos are off the walls and on the kitchen table, ready to load into the car if they have to evacuate.

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Firefighters and other friends call to check up on him.

“I’ve got fires all around me,” Bowman says, his red eyes wet from the sting of smoke.

About 8 a.m., Bowman gets a call from his mother’s nursing home.

They’re evacuating the residents.

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“I’ll go get her,” he tells Denise, and we pile into his truck for a short ride to a nearby neighborhood called Hidden Meadows.

When he isn’t growing Malbec and Cabernet Franc grapes on the 1-acre vineyard in front of his retreat, Bowman works as a consultant to fire departments and municipalities. With 16 years as chief in Anaheim and four in San Diego before quitting over staffing and resource issues, he’s got strong opinions on San Diego’s long, proud culture of skimping on services to keep taxes low.

There’s no way to adequately staff for fires of this magnitude, Bowman says, and he doesn’t want to turn so much scorched earth and misery into an I-told-you-so speech. But as we drive to get his mother, he can’t help but go over some of the facts.

Although the city of San Diego has a fire department, the county doesn’t, leaving many suburban and rural areas to rely on volunteer departments. The city has but one firefighting helicopter and just 975 firefighters for 330 square miles and 1.3 million residents.

Compare that, he says, with San Francisco, which has 1,600 firefighters for 60 square miles and 850,000 people.

“San Diego practices the biggest don’t-tax-me campaign I’ve seen,” says Bowman, a proud, lifelong Republican. Fine, he says, don’t raise taxes. But reevaluate how money is spent and redistribute it to public safety.

A number of San Diego suburbs have the same resource problems, he says, and are more inclined to invest in evacuation technology than fire prevention and suppression.

“It’s a lot cheaper,” he says. “I’ve had the hardest time with the culture of ‘We can do more with less.’ ”

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While we’re on the way to get his mother, Denise calls to say the evacuation technology has just kicked in at their house. She got an automated call telling her to evacuate.

The sky is the color of charcoal, the air thick, and a long line of evacuees is stuck in traffic coming down the road from where his mother is. Bowman tells his wife he thinks she’s safe for a while, but says she should leave immediately if she thinks it’s necessary.

As we approach his mother’s nursing home, I can’t help but notice the number of houses foolishly built on the edge of dense vegetation.

As UC San Diego professor Steve Erie puts it:

“It’s paradise plundered,” which happens to be the title of a book he’s finishing “about how developers run this town.”

Erie says that “developers own most of the city councils. In Poway, in Escondido, what they do is put homeowners in harm’s way. They’re able to control zoning processes, and they’re frequently behind initiatives that say no new taxes, no new fire services. It’s insanity.”

Near his mother’s place, Bowman points out a fire station under construction. He’s glad it’s being built, but it should have gone up years ago, he says, when houses were first built in this formerly rural area filled with combustible vegetation.

At his mother’s nursing home, the caretakers are outside with garden hoses and face masks as smoke closes in. Bowman calmly goes inside and gets 83-year-old Ruth, who is not well enough to know what’s happening.

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“We’re going on an adventure,” he tells her as she gets into the truck with her clothes and a few belongings tossed into a bag.

If it was the right job, Bowman says, sure, he’d like to be a fire chief again. It’s easy to see how much, at age 55, he misses the action and the challenge of running a good department. But he’ll only work for a city that wants to do it right, and that may never happen in the area where he lives now.

Back at his place, the sky appears to have cleared a bit. The former chief decides to stay put, and when I check back in the evening, he says he’s still safe. At least for the time being.

steve.lopez@latimes.com


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