FALLBROOK, CALIF. — When the next major brush fire strikes San Diego County, the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department may not be able to send firefighters to help surrounding communities, the city's fire chief warned a congressional subcommittee Monday.
"I may need every available city firefighting resource [to stay] within the city," Fire Chief Tracy Jarman told members of the domestic policy subcommittee of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.
The testimony underscores the divisions that still exist over the future of firefighting in San Diego County, which has experienced two catastrophic brush fire incidents in the last five years that together destroyed more than 3,900 homes.
Jarman's fire department is the largest in the county and has mutual-aid agreements with smaller departments. For example, as the recent Witch fire raced toward the San Diego neighborhood of Rancho Bernardo, city firefighters were busy fighting fires outside the city, Jarman said at the hearing.
She told the subcommittee that the county should have its own fire department. It is alone among California counties of its size in not having one.
A state agency last week took a major step toward putting the idea of a county fire department on the ballot. But the suggestion, which comes up after every fire, is opposed by many rural residents and volunteer fire departments, and would have to overcome local residents' historic aversion to taxes.
At the hearing, the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors and two local congressmen from fire-prone areas downplayed the need -- a sign of the continued political divisiveness of the issue.
Supervisor Ron Roberts told the hearing that it was a mistake to think that a county fire department would be a panacea. He said he was working on a proposal to buy 50 fire engines for departments in the region.
Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Vista) and Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Carlsbad) suggested that San Diego County's problem was not the lack of a county fire department but the fact that half of the land in the county is owned by the state or federal government.
State and federal land is "highly combustible and undeveloped," Issa said.
"And untaxed," Bilbray added.
Both called on the state and federal governments to enhance their firefighting capability.
"We did a better job than in the Cedar fire, but it's very clear that we got lucky," Issa said.
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), the subcommittee chairman, said the luck was that no major blazes outside Southern California required the deployment of state and federal firefighters and aircraft.
The Witch, Poomacha, Harris and Rice fires destroyed 1,700 homes in San Diego County, compared with 2,200 destroyed by the Cedar and Rice fires in 2003.
At a hearing of a different congressional committee last month, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called on San Diego to end its long-standing under-funding of fire protection.
But Chief Jarman said it was unfair to target the city.
"You need to be aware," Jarman said, "the county of San Diego has [lacked] and still lacks the firefighting resources necessary to protect its residents and visitors during significant firestorms."
Jarman noted that the Cedar and Witch fires started outside the city and then swept inside. A major brush fire, Jarman said, "will happen again and likely sooner than any of us expect. My hope is that next time we will be better prepared as a region."