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With the wildfires dimming and our breaking news coverage of them winding down, I thought it’d be a good time to search our archives real quick and provide some links to some work done before the fires.

Here we go:

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 …

Our skilled photographer Sam Hodgson also did a piece along those same lines back when he was a news writing intern.

  • Carless and Rob Davis wrote in May about how one of the driest years on record had spurred local firefighting agencies preparing for a potentially explosive fire season. From the piece:

Across San Diego County, living and dead vegetation is drier and more likely to burn. Plants contain, on average, about 60 percent of the moisture they typically do, said Richard Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute in Escondido.

“It’s a little scary because when you’ve got plant material out there with a lower moisture level, it will take a lot less heat for it to ignite,” Halsey said. “That’s the whole issue. Things are going to ignite a lot quicker.”

Whether a major fire occurs will depend on the severity of Santa Ana wind conditions, Halsey said. The strong, hot winds that blow into San Diego from the desert are often the biggest factor in spreading large wildfires. “There’s no stopping those.”

  • And in August 2006, Hodgson took on a topic that’s likely to become quite popular in the wake of these fires: that San Diego is the largest county in California without its own unified fire department.

Here’s how the story starts:

Earlier this year, the Intermountain Fire-Rescue Department hosted a Hawaiian luau. Hundreds of community members attended the $40-per-plate fete, which came complete with a Kamaaina Luau menu and live dancing from the Halou Hula O’Ka’co group.

By the end of the night, the department, based eight miles outside Ramona, had raised about $40,000 — half of the department’s annual $80,000 operating budget.

And it’s not always a luau that is used to finance the community’s fire service. Last year, the firefighters at Intermountain organized a Western barbeque steak dinner. Next year, they hope to do something a little classier — a black tie event at Mt. Woodson. Every now and then, the firefighters host a car wash to pay for their badges and patches.

Chief Cary Coleman hopes, however, that these fundraisers will soon become a thing of the past. Not that he doesn’t enjoy the steak dinners and Hawaiian dancing. He just thinks that the county, rather than local quasi-philanthropists, should be paying for fire protection.

San Diego is the largest county in California without its own fire department. Sixty-five separate agencies protect the wide, arid county, but there is no unified command that binds them together. Many of the rural areas of San Diego are protected by understaffed and underfunded fire districts, officials say. In some of the unincorporated regions of the county, there is simply no fire department whatsoever.

That’s a problem, according to fire officials, because when fires break out in these unprotected regions, crews leave the town they are paid to protect to take care of another locality.

The patchwork system began in 1974, when the county discontinued its funding for fire services and encouraged unincorporated areas to create their own volunteer fire departments. For more than 30 years, the county stayed out of the fire protection business. This year, the Board of Supervisors began to reverse that trend, approving a three-year program that provides $5 million annually for such simple expenses as utility bills and gas for rural volunteer fire agencies. They approved an additional $3.5 million this year.

ANDREW DONOHUE

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