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San Diego Was in No Shape for This Fight

October 31, 2003|Tony Perry, Stuart Pfeifer and Jennifer Oldham | Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO — 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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday November 01, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Cedar fire -- Two articles in Friday's Section A on the Southland wildfires gave incorrect totals for the number of deaths in the Cedar fire. One said four, the other 13; the correct number is 14. And one of the articles put the total number of homes destroyed in the Cedar fire as of Thursday at 483; it should have said 1,483.

"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.

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