SAN DIEGO — U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein said Tuesday that city officials must move "vigorously" to end the city's historic under-funding of its fire department or risk massive loss of life in another brush fire.
The California Democrat, in her opening comments at a hearing of the Senate Interior Appropriations Subcommittee, said San Diego lagged behind other major cities in almost all measures of fire protection, including response time and the number of firefighters and fire stations.
"I'm sorry to say, but I believe the city has underfunded its fire services for years," she said at a hearing assessing the brush fires that rampaged through Southern California last month.
She noted that San Diego County, alone among the seven largest counties in the state, does not have a countywide fire department.
Jeff Bowman, who resigned as the city's fire chief in 2006 out of frustration at what he felt was a dangerously penny-pinching attitude toward fire protection, warned that San Diego could be on the verge of a familiar pattern: a destructive fire followed by recommendations for improved fire protection followed by a lack of action.
"It's deja vu," Bowman told the subcommittee, which met in the chambers of the San Diego City Council. "The recommendations get made, and nothing happens."
Local officials gently tried to push back at the implication that the region had not improved fire protection since the Cedar and Paradise fires in 2003, when firefighting was hampered by a lack of resources.
Council President Scott Peters noted that in 2004 the city twice unsuccessfully asked voters to increase the hotel-motel tax, paid by visitors, to improve fire protection. "We did get [politically] fatigued after trying twice after the Cedar fire," Peters said.
Feinstein countered that "maybe the third time will be the charm."
Supervisor Ron Roberts, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, said that since 2003, the county government had spent $20 million on a new communication system for firefighters and $40 million on clearing away "dead, dying or diseased trees."
As a result of the tree-clearance programs, no roads were blocked during the fires that swept through the county in October, Roberts said.
He also suggested that a countywide fire department was not essential.
"I noticed L.A. County's fire department hasn't done such a hot job," he said.
San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, who was in Sacramento lobbying for transportation funds, submitted to the subcommittee a list of new engines and other equipment bought since 2003.
Feinstein backed down, but only slightly.
"There is no question the city is moving," she said. "Whether it can move vigorously enough to do what it has to do is the question I have."
The senator said she was taken aback by the sight of homes burned to the ground in Rancho Bernardo, a San Diego neighborhood without a fire station.
"If I lived in that area, I'd be all over the City Council: Do something!" she said.
But Peters said it was unclear whether having a fire station in Rancho Bernardo would have helped save some homes. The city is doing a comprehensive after-action report.
The Witch, Poomacha, Rice and Harris fires, driven by Santa Ana winds, burned 368,000 acres, destroyed 1,700 homes and left 10 people dead in the county, Roberts told the hearing.
The San Diego electorate has a reputation for being tax-averse. As a result, the city has long had fewer firefighters per 1,000 residents and fewer stations per neighborhood than most large cities in the nation.
A national agency that evaluates fire departments says 90% of calls should be met within five minutes. In San Diego, only 47% of calls are met within five minutes, Feinstein said.
Her recitation of the figures -- that the city could use 800 more firefighters and 22 more stations -- was not new to local officials.
But some thought they bore repeating.
"I think we needed someone from the outside to say those things," said Rep. Bob Filner (D-Chula Vista), a former San Diego councilman.