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Friday, Nov. 9, 2007 | On a dry, blustery September day in 1970, a power line fell in the mountains east of San Diego and sent up a warning that went largely unheeded.
Today, the story sounds familiar: Sparks fly, dry winds catch them and no one can stop what comes next. On that day, the flames screamed south, jumping Interstate 8. With gusts hitting 82 mph, firefighters could do little to halt the ensuing inferno that killed eight people and almost burned to San Diego’s southeastern boundary.
The incident came to be known as the Laguna Fire and set a record as the largest wildfire in modern California history, a mark surpassed several times since.
The massive Santa Ana wind-stoked blaze happened at the perfect time for the city of San Diego’s leaders to learn a lesson. The Navy town was about to go through a massive 20-year growth spurt that today defines its sprawling boundaries.
If the Laguna Fire had a lesson, it was this: Wind-driven wildfire was a real threat to San Diego’s urban fringes, the very place where development was about to occur.
But the lesson went unheeded. In the decades after the fire, San Diego’s population soared 85 percent, from 700,000 to more than 1.3 million. Residents began moving to the scenic fringe of wildland, to chaparral-covered areas that were threatened or burned by the 2003 Cedar Fire and 2007 Witch Fire — places such as fire-affected Rancho Bernardo and Scripps Ranch.
In the years after the Laguna Fire, many new residents moved into areas with a higher fire risk, but stations were slow to follow. Some promised in the early 1980s took years — even decades — to be built.
“We are serial non-learners when it comes to fire preparation,” said Steve Erie, a University of California, San Diego political science professor. “We should’ve learned in 1970. That was just a preview of coming attractions. And we continue to build out there. And we don’t have the fire stations, the equipment and the personnel.”
Today, residents of new neighborhoods must contend with firehouses that are spread farther apart, cover more territory and provide slower response times than old stations.
As the city grew, fire-fighting infrastructure did not keep up. Every city fire station falls short of a national association’s standard of responding to 90 percent of calls within five minutes.
When the Laguna Fire broke out, the city had one firefighter for every 1,207 residents.
That has dropped to one firefighter for every 1,469 residents. That’s the lowest of any California city, according to a 2005 report by the Center on Policy Initiatives, a liberal San Diego think tank.
In the wake of the 2003 Cedar Fire, which burned 28,000 acres within San Diego city limits and destroyed 335 city homes, attention focused on what the city government did to improve its fire infrastructure.
The city touts its progress. The department has replaced old engines and expanded its reserve fleet, though much of its equipment remains outdated. It has opened two fire stations, one permanent and one temporary, though its former chief says 22 more are needed. Staffing levels have remained static. Since 2003, the department has added two firefighters.
But the city is only beginning to return the fire department to the level of service it provided in the 1970s.
Back then, Scripps Ranch was little more than a few dozen homes on the outskirts of town. The neighborhood’s population was about to explode. By 1980, Scripps Ranch was filled with more than 1,600 homes. Its fire station — No. 37 — was scheduled to open in 1983, Tony Gwynn’s second season with the Padres.
As the 1980s passed, Scripps Ranch homes went up by the hundreds. And the promised fire station was delayed again and again and again as the city waited for funding to materialize.
By August 2001, when Scripps Ranch was filled with more than 7,000 homes, Station No. 37 opened. Tony Gwynn was two months away from retiring.
Today, the station covers one of the largest areas of any city firehouse, 21 square miles. It has one of the slowest average response times, arriving on scene within five minutes at 32 percent of emergency calls — well below a national goal of 90 percent.
The fire station’s delay and struggles are not uncommon.
In the early 1970s, the city planned to open a permanent Del Mar Heights fire station in 1973. It opened 20 years later. A Mira Mesa station planned for 1981 didn’t open until 1990. An Otay Mesa station due in 1989 opened in 1995. Even then, the border area station opened without a full compliment of staff — an issue that remains unresolved today.
A permanent Mission Valley station scheduled for 1981 has never been completed. The city now aims to have the station built in 2010, but it has been barred from financial markets and cannot borrow money to pay for construction.
A 2005 study confirmed the problem.
“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,” states the report from the Commission on Fire Accreditation International. “The department has not been involved in City planning processes.”
The uneven pace continues today. When former San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman arrived in the city in 2002, he said he visited the new neighborhood of Santaluz, near Rancho Santa Fe. Home construction had just begun. By 2003, residents were streaming in. But the neighborhood had no fire station. It opened in February 2004.
In Pacific Highlands Ranch, Station No. 47 is scheduled to open in early 2008 — seven years after residents moved in.
“Where I come from, when the lumber gets dropped on a new development, the fire station was already put up,” said Bowman, a former Anaheim fire chief. “Not only did they let them drop the lumber, they built the homes and let the residents move in. It’s horrible public policy.”
Even the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department’s annual report, which provides statistical data about performance, is two years behind schedule. The latest report’s opening pages list Dick Murphy, who resigned in April 2005, as mayor.
“We just don’t have staff,” said San Diego Fire-Rescue spokesman Maurice Luque. “We’re hurting administrative-wise to get this stuff done. That’s not a high priority.”
Fire station progress is scheduled to occur slowly. Four are on the horizon: One next year and three in 2010. But there is no other long-term blueprint to build stations in a city where every firehouse falls short of national response standards. Bowman, the former chief, has argued the city needs a 50 percent increase in stations at a cost of $100 million, plus $40 million annually for staffing.
“There’s not going to be an overall magic wand, everything’s going to be fine,” Luque said. “The progress is going to be incremental.”
In the 1970s, though, progress was steady, as the city opened a fire station nearly every year. At the time, the city relied on sales tax revenue to build stations. The city has since relied on fees levied against developers and homebuyers and opened an average of five stations per decade. The gap added up.
Some attribute the infrastructure slowdown to Proposition 13, a 1978 statewide ballot initiative that capped the amount of property tax that could be collected from homeowners.
“After Prop. 13, we drank the Kool-Aid,” said Erie, the UCSD professor. “No other community was as committed to not raising taxes as San Diego.”
That continues today. Within a year of the Cedar Fire, voters rejected two separate hotel-tax increases marketed as efforts to help boost fire protection funding.
Today, 10 stations cover more than 10 square miles. Bowman said the goal should be five square miles. “Over nine square miles, it’s not even a debate,” he said.
None covers more territory than Station No. 33 in Rancho Bernardo, which serves 27 square miles, an area where more than 40,000 people live. All of the 365 homes destroyed in city limits in the Witch Fire fell within its coverage area.
On average, its engine responds to 37 percent of emergencies within five minutes; the national standard is 90 percent. The firehouse covers territory as far as 13 miles away, including the San Diego Wild Animal Park and San Pasqual Valley, which also houses a volunteer fire station.
“It’s one example of many where that city has been negligent in maintaining adequate standards for the protection of the public,” said Bowman, who resigned in 2006 after protesting the city’s lack of fire investment. “I explained it to them before the Cedar Fire and nothing was done. I explained it to them after the Cedar Fire and nothing was done. My fear is that nothing will be done this time, either.”