San Diego Was in No Shape for This Fight

Times Staff Writers

Fire protection in San Diego County, where 16 people died this week in massive blazes, lags significantly behind other areas of the state in terms of resources, coordination and equipment.

The deaths and the destruction of more than 1,600 homes have reopened a long-standing debate here over what many officials say is drastic under-funding and poor organization of firefighting efforts.

“We have got to make changes so that services are provided better,” said county Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who has attempted for nearly a decade to convince local fire districts to combine. “We need consolidation, but even with that, there is a dark cloud over all of us called lack of adequate resources.”


Examples of the gap between San Diego and other cities include:

* San Diego has no helicopters for dropping water on fires. By contrast, the Los Angeles Fire Department has six, supplemented by additional helicopters belonging to Los Angeles County.

“That’s one of the first things I noticed when I got here,” said Jeff Bowman, who took over San Diego’s Fire Department last year. “We had to do something in this community to get air support.”

For four months this year, San Diego leased one helicopter. But last week, just before the fires broke out, city officials allowed the lease to run out amid disagreement over whether the city or the county should pay the bill.

* The San Diego Fire Department has roughly 35% fewer firefighters per 1,000 residents than average for large cities nationally.

* Of the seven largest counties in the state, San Diego is the only one without a unified countywide fire department. Fire protection is provided by 18 cities and more than 20 fire districts.

Many of those small departments rely heavily on volunteer firefighters -- a rarity among large, heavily populated counties -- and often use antiquated equipment.


Bowman and San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy say they doubt that more firefighters or equipment would have saved lives or property Saturday night and Sunday morning when high winds whipped a small brush fire into the massive Cedar blaze.

“This fire by the time it got into my city was moving so quickly we could have had an army of helicopters and it wouldn’t have stopped this,” Bowman said. “It’s the fastest-moving fire I’ve seen in 30 years.”

But of the 13 people killed by the Cedar fire, at least 12 lived in two neighborhoods outside the city that received no warning that a fire was heading for them in the early hours of Sunday morning, according to survivors.

Eight lived in an area served by a rural fire district that relies on 100 volunteers to supplement a handful of full-time firefighters.

The volunteers “all have pagers and that’s how we get ahold of them when trouble breaks out,” said Capt. Angel Hendrie of the San Diego Rural Fire Protection District.

“It’s basically a volunteer fire department. Landwise and mapwise, it’s our jurisdiction,” Hendrie said, referring to the area in which the eight deaths occurred. “But we don’t have a fire station close to there.”


For at least a generation, most attempts in San Diego County to raise taxes to boost fire protection have lost. In the last 25 years, 32 of 50 ballot measures aimed at raising money for fire protection in the county have failed.

“San Diegans are cheap,” said Steve Erie, professor of political science at UC San Diego and an expert in the funding of local government. “We’ve come to rely on the kindness of outsiders in terms of mutual aid. It’s the result of politicians who follow rather than lead.”

The city of Los Angeles spends $107 per resident on fire protection, Los Angeles County $141; in the city of San Diego, the figure is $85.

The resistance to spending more on fire protection has persisted despite repeated warnings that the county was literally playing with fire.

Earlier this year a fire protection task force assembled by the county government warned that “almost one-half of the vegetation in San Diego County’s wild land is over 50 years old. Another 30% is over 20 years old. This means that 80% of wild land areas in San Diego will burn explosively under typical periods of high fire danger.”

The San Diego Fire Department currently has about 0.85 firefighters per 1,000 residents, according to department officials. The firefighters union says the figure is lower. The national median for cities of more than 1 million population is 1.31 firefighters per 1,000 residents, according to the National Fire Protection Assn.


“We’ve not been able to keep up with growth,” said August Ghio, Deputy Chief of the San Diego department.

“San Diego has lots of beautiful things, lots of great public services, but people don’t like paying for things,” he said.

To compensate for the low numbers, the department has a long-standing policy of allowing virtually unlimited overtime for firefighters. That allows stations to be staffed to meet routine calls; many firefighters routinely work double shifts.

The result, however, is that during times of crisis, fire protection within the city is immediately stretched to the breaking point.

“When you live like that, sooner or later it’s going to bite you, and that’s what happened in this fire,” said Ron Saathoff, president of San Diego Firefighters Local 145.

Past efforts to expand and reorganize firefighting efforts in the city and county have run up against San Diego’s conservative political culture and strong support for local control.


In the next several months, the debate will be joined again. Earlier this month, a measure to increase San Diego’s hotel-motel tax to bolster fire and police protection was placed on the ballot, but only over strong opposition from Murphy and two other City Council members. Firefighting resources have also become an issue in the runup to next year’s campaign for mayor.

Outside the city, efforts to consolidate small fire agencies have also met considerable resistance.

Supporters of consolidation argue that having many small fire agencies wastes money and gets in the way of fighting fires.

“When you have all those smaller agencies you have duplication of efforts -- training, communications, administration, all the overhead costs,” said Brian Fennessy, program manager for San Diego’s fire and rescue helicopter program.

Small districts also tend to rely heavily on volunteers, which is problematic, said Alameda County Fire Chief Bill McCammon, president of the California Fire Chiefs Assn.

Volunteer firefighters, despite a high sense of motivation and copious amounts of courage, often do not have the needed training, he said.


“Training is difficult to maintain even with professional firefighters,” he said. “With volunteers, it’s even more difficult.”

Most large urbanized counties in California, including Orange, Los Angeles, Ventura and San Bernardino, have a single, unified county fire department.

In Orange County, which like San Diego County has a population of about 3 million, the county Fire Authority serves 22 cities and the unincorporated area.

Similarly, Ventura County, where two wildfires burned more than 168,000 acres during the past week but destroyed few structures, has a county fire department with 383 full-time firefighters.

The Ventura department also has four large Sheriff’s Department helicopters at its disposal, which it leases from the law-enforcement agency on an hourly basis when needed.

At supervisor Jacob’s prodding, San Diego’s Local Agency Formation Commission, charged with helping avoid duplication among public agencies, has been working for months on a report on merging smaller fire districts and perhaps starting a county fire department.


But consolidation runs against the grain of many residents and officials in San Diego County. Firefighters worry that their pay and benefits could be cut if their agency were merged with another. Some residents worry about losing “local control.”

“Because of its geography, San Diego County is really separate from the rest of California,” said Mike Ott, executive officer of the Local Agency Formation Commission. “That has given rise to a very independent mind-set and part of that is a great concern about losing local control to some ‘outside’ group.”

Three years ago, county officials and local taxpayers’ advocates thought they had found the perfect test case for consolidating a small fire district into a nearby larger one.

The Lincoln Acres fire protection district serves a neighborhood within National City. The district has no firefighters or engines of its own. It contracts with the National City Fire Department for its services. Even so, voters turned down the idea of consolidation, with opponents arguing a possible lack of local control.