Thursday, July 19, 2007 | In October 2003, the Cedar Fire was 24 hours from reaching the Pacific Ocean.
If hot Santa Ana winds blowing off the desert had continued to fuel the massive fire marching in on the city for just one more day, fire officials said, the flames would have continued their march from East County, through the San Clemente Canyon to La Jolla, eventually reaching the sea.
But the winds stopped. Nature gave the firefighters a fighting chance.
Now, San Diego’s firefighters and the city’s government have had a breather of nearly four years — a chance to regroup and to tackle the realization that the region’s wildfires are a devastating force with the potential to wreak havoc of a biblical scale within the city’s urban core.
In that time, the Fire-Rescue Department has managed to squeeze incremental funding increases out of a cash-strapped city budget. Since 2003, the department has seen a 33 percent increase in its funding, though the bulk of that money has gone toward personnel costs even as the total number of fire employees has shrunk. The remainder of the funding increase, and money from corporate sponsors and state and federal sources, has kick-started programs the department needs to properly prepare itself for the next spate of wildfires.
But as San Diego faces one of its driest fire seasons in memory, the Fire-Rescue Department is still falling short of its goals in several crucial areas included in a 2004 report by former fire Chief Jeff Bowman. The report, compiled from the feedback of dozens of firefighters in the wake of the deadly Cedar Fire, detailed what the department needed to do to be prepared for the next raging wildfire. An analysis of the department’s work in meeting those goals reveals some significant shortcomings:
- The department said it needs three firefighting helicopters. It currently has one, though it receives backup from two helicopters at the San Diego County Sheriff’s Department. San Diego County also has far fewer helicopters than Los Angeles County, despite having far more burnable material.
- The department said all of its firefighters should attend nationally recognized wildfire training. Today, training for fighting wildfires remains much the same as before the Cedar Fire. Most firefighters have to attend wildfire training courses in their own time.
- The department aimed to adequately staff itself for an event of the magnitude of the Cedar Fire. Since 2003, one permanent and one temporary fire station have opened, but the city still has far fewer firefighters per capita than other similar-sized cities.
- While the department has invested $16 million in new emergency-response vehicles, it has so far replaced only one-fifth of a fleet that was 50 percent outdated four years ago. And the city’s reserve fleet is currently at one-third the strength the department has mandated, and includes several vehicles that are insufficiently equipped.
In several other areas, including properly equipping firefighters and improving the department’s emergency communications equipment and logistical plans, the department has fared much better since 2003.
But the city’s former fire chief, who resigned from the department two years ago, remains a vocal critic of what he says is the city of San Diego’s reluctance to invest in fire safety in any meaningful way. He said the Cedar Fire, which burned more than 28,000 acres of the city and destroyed 335 structures within the city’s jurisdiction, has not served as a wake-up call for the city of San Diego.
“They’ve done very little to improve the fire department’s ability to manage a large-scale event,” said Bowman, who resigned from the SDFD last year. “Not even one the size of the Cedar Fire.”
Training the Troops
Prior to the Cedar Fire, SDFD personnel who wanted to attend nationally recognized wildfire training courses on skills — such as wildland fire behavior or leading strike teams in fighting wildfires — had to do so in their own time.
For many firefighters, that meant taking time off to attend training camps that were often located in other cities or even other states. Firefighters had to pay up-front for those courses themselves, and claim the cost of the course from the department.
All of that is still true today.
“It sucks,” said Neil Whelan, a firefighter and paramedic at San Diego’s Station 14. “You go to a class and you’re sitting next to some guys who came down from Orange County or San Francisco or something, and their department’s paying them for their time off, giving them a car to drive down in, a hotel room to stay in, and you have to … go to a class for a day and burn your holiday time.”
The city’s firefighters are primarily trained for battling structure fires in urban areas, though the SDFD does participate in an annual wildland refresher.
Poor training was a big issue for the SDFD during the Cedar Fire, according to the 2004 report. Firefighters were observed using chainsaws incorrectly and getting themselves into high-risk, low-benefit situations, the report states, and many of the firefighters reported receiving inconsistent orders and information from their superiors.
“Key leadership should pull its collective head out of the sand during emergency situations,” one firefighter wrote on a feedback form for the 2004 report.
The department’s message in 2004 was clear: Provide all the city’s firefighters with nationally recognized urban-wildland firefighting training. Compulsory wildfire training for everyone was deemed essential for the department to be prepared for future catastrophes.
But Jeff Carle, deputy fire chief and director of operations at the SDFD, said the requirements laid out in 2004 were “grossly overarching” and unrealistic, that the department has ramped up training for battalion chiefs, and that he would provide the wildfire training to everyone if he could.
“But that would probably cost us in excess of a quarter of a million dollars every year,” he said.
A New Helicopter
Asked what the department’s main achievement has been since the Cedar Fire, the crew at Station 14, in North Park, answered in unison “The helicopter.”
The SDFD has had a full-time helicopter since 2005. The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department has two more helicopters that can be used as backups for firefighting. SDFD officials said that means the fire department has a fleet of three helicopters, or exactly what it said it needed in 2004, though they said it would be nice to have another helicopter that’s dedicated exclusively to the Fire-Rescue Department.
But Bowman called the new helicopter a “baby step” for the department, and said the addition of one full-time firefighting helicopter does little to bring San Diego in line with other cities in California.
The city of Los Angeles has six helicopters and Los Angeles County has eight more. San Diego County has much more burnable material than Los Angeles, Bowman said, yet the county of San Diego has less than a quarter of the air support of Los Angeles County.
Department officials pointed out that San Diego’s helicopter is one of only two firefighting helicopters in the country that flies at night, with the pilot using night-vision goggles. They said the helicopter has made a huge difference in their ability to fight wildfires in their early stages.
“I don’t think the region or the city of San Diego realized what value the helicopter added, and I think we’ve all come to realize it,” said fire Chief Tracy Jarman.
Riding to the Fires
As the Cedar Fire blazed, every one of the city’s emergency-response vehicles was called into action. But with every available firefighter in the city responding, there were nowhere near enough rigs to go around.
One group of firefighters was left scouring the city desperately looking for a rig to take to the front and fight the fire, one firefighter wrote.
After being dropped off by a bus in Kearny Mesa, the firefighters started to call around to find a spare fire engine. Finally, after 48 hours without a vehicle, they were told an engine was available and drove over to pick it up.
Three hours after picking up its rig, the crew got a call from its fire chief. He wanted the rig back because it had already been sold to Mexico and he was afraid it might be damaged in the fire. The firefighters asked what vehicle they would get in exchange and were told nothing was available. They refused to return the rig and the firefighter wrote that the chief called several times throughout the day to check that it hadn’t been damaged.
Since 2003, 11 of the fleet’s 47 engines have been replaced. Another eight replacement engines are on their way. The SDFD has replaced four of its 12 ladder trucks and has ordered four more, and the department has also added seven new brush rigs — vehicles designed specifically for fighting wildfires. In total, the department has spent $16 million on new apparatus.
“We are just light years ahead of where we were then,” said Assistant Chief Javier Mainar, who oversees the department’s fleet.
But, in all, the department has updated less than 20 percent of its emergency-response vehicles. In 2003, a total of 50 percent of those vehicles were older than they should have been.
And in a catastrophe like the Cedar Fire, the department’s backup fleet becomes as important as the front-line vehicles.
“(In 2003) I responded in a city bus, with no equipment, and that’s exactly what would happen again because we don’t have enough reserve apparatus,” said Station 14’s Whelan.
A number of issues remain for the department’s reserve fleet:
- It is currently one-third the size of the department’s goal. There are six backup engines, 12 short of the 18 the department has said it needs.
- Many of the new rigs have been fitted by stripping the engines they replaced. That means the older rigs are put into reserve with poorer communications equipment and lack basic safety features like ember separators and emergency lighting.
- A couple of the city’s reserve engines also have open cabs, a design now widely considered to be dangerous in fighting wildfires. Firefighters using open-cab rigs in 2003 suffered eye, respiratory and burn injuries.
Bowman said the proper equipping of the reserve vehicles was one of the most important lessons the department should have learned from the Cedar Fire. Providing new communications equipment for the back-up rigs is absolutely crucial, he said, and it still hasn’t happened.
“If [a Cedar Fire-type event] happened today, could people communicate?” Bowman said. “They’re not even doing the basics — that’s as basic as it gets.”
Addressing the Radio Fiasco
“Radios … I don’t think we need to add anything other than they were a problem,” one firefighter wrote in his feedback to the department.
Two years after the Cedar Fire, the SDFD’s radio issues in 2003 were well-known among firefighters as one of the department’s most basic and embarrassing failures.
Dead batteries, a lack of battery chargers, not enough batteries, a lack of basic training and a desperate shortage of radios plagued the department throughout the days of the Cedar Fire, and many firefighters simply gave up on using their radios, according to the 2005 report.
Since 2003, the department has been buying up spare batteries and chargers, and has ramped up its radio-usage training. Department spokesman Maurice Luque said the department now has enough batteries and chargers to keep all its radios up-and-running for 48 hours.
The firefighters at Station 14 said the radio issue has been greatly improved since the Cedar Fire, and that if a similar catastrophe hit tomorrow, they would be well-equipped to properly communicate with each other and with the rest of the department.
A Swelling City, a Stagnant Department
Between 1990 and 2006, San Diego added more than 200,000 people and more than 60,000 homes. In that time, the SDFD added 84 firefighters or one for every 2,455 people.
Today, San Diego has far fewer firefighters per capita than other cities of a similar size. According to a 2005 study, there is one firefighter for every 1,469 people in San Diego. Dallas, which is almost the same size as San Diego, has twice as many firefighters: One for every 702 people. Phoenix, which is bigger than San Diego by more than 200,000 people, has one firefighter for every 997 people and San Francisco does even better: It has one firefighter for every 421 people.
“The City has been unable to keep pace with the growth of San Diego in terms of infrastructure, capital improvement projects, staffing and other critical resources on a citywide basis,” reads the 2005 report, completed by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International.
Since the Cedar Fire, the department has opened two new stations, one temporary station based in Mission Valley and one permanent station in Santaluz, near Del Mar. These stations were planned before the Cedar Fire came along, however, and since 2003, there has been no move to increase staffing above what had already been planned.
“We are 20 stations short and we simply have not kept up with the growth of the city,” said Ron Saathoff, president of the San Diego firefighters union. “The city has grown immensely in the last 20 years and our capability has diminished. It will continue that way until we put in a plan that says for each number of new dwellings, we will increase the number of firefighters.”
Organizing and Equipping the City’s Firefighters
“I asked a number of times who was in command? The answer I was given each time was ‘I don’t know,’” wrote one firefighter in the wake of the Cedar Fire.
Comments like this litter the feedback that has shaped the SDFD’s response to the events of 2003. Department officials balked at the suggestion that they failed to properly manage the Cedar Fire, but revamping the department’s emergency organization procedures has been a major focus for the SDFD in the last four years.
Fire-Rescue Department officials said they have upgraded their command center for large-scale emergencies. The department has a dedicated workspace that is closed until it is needed. That facility is now far better equipped than it was in 2003, Carle said, as money from the city budget and grants has been used to provide the control center with everything from new chairs to a sophisticated video-teleconferencing unit.
But there were other logistical problems during the Cedar Fire.
Some off-duty firefighters didn’t have keys for their stations and couldn’t access their safety equipment to take with them to the fire. The department’s reserves for things such as helmets and brush jackets quickly ran out, and several firefighters reported a lack of basic firefighting equipment such as spare hoses and nozzles.
Department officials said the SDFD has overhauled its recall procedures and the issue of personnel access to facilities. All firefighters can now access their stations at all times, and officials said the department also now has a much larger stock of personal protective equipment.
The Station 14 firefighters said if a large wildfire happened tomorrow, they would be able to get into their station to pick up their equipment. They also praised the department for providing them with new equipment, including new fire shelters and personal web gear, which is used for holding radios and other equipment. Much of that funding came from grants, including almost $280,000 from the San Diego Chargers.
Mayor Jerry Sanders promotes public safety as his No. 1 priority, but the Fire-Rescue Department’s issues struggle for attention in a city awash with financial demands. And in the last few years, the pains of the Cedar Fire have been overshadowed by the city’s pension scandal and its related fallout.
Though Fire-Rescue Department officials said they are proud of what they have achieved in difficult times, they stressed that those achievements do not constitute a panacea for the deep-rooted problems they encountered in 2003.
“It’s a challenge, said Jarman, the fire chief, “but you aren’t going to solve it overnight.”