Santa Ana fueled wildfires aren’t confined to Julian, or Santa Ysabel or any of the other rural areas where our wildfires originate. Wildfire doesn’t know when it’s crossing over from a territory protected by well-funded fire agency to an area protected solely by cash-strapped volunteers. This October, for the second time in four years, we witnessed once again just how quickly a tiny rural spot fire turns into a regional inferno.

The region’s top firefighting minds, including the Fire Chief’s Association and the Task Force on Fire Protection and Emergency Medical Services, were saying it before the Cedar Fire: bring together the hodgepodge of fire agencies putting out fires in our region.

In 2004, more than 81 percent of unincorporated area voters resoundingly agreed.

Last week, the Local Agency Formation Commission, the governing body whose role it is to create new public agencies, moved forward with the first phase of a plan to consolidate the 65 separate fire agencies in the region. The first step protects more than half of the region with a new county fire authority, which would include 940,000 acres of unincorporated area currently considered unserved today.

Right now, emergency services for rural areas are divided among so many separate agencies that no authority is accountable for creating and implementing a comprehensive vision for the region. This haphazard system is especially ineffective for managing brush, the most fundamental way to protect lives and property from wildfire. Currently a community that goes to great lengths to clear brush is placed at-risk by a neighboring community with no brush management strategy.

And, when you consider that more than some 80 percent of emergency calls are not fires, but medical emergencies, parochialism seems especially short-sighted. If, on a leisurely visit to our beautiful backcountry, you or someone you love is involved in a traffic accident or suffers a heart attack, stroke or other injury, cross your fingers and hope a volunteer is on duty.

Every other large county in California knows what our county has learned the hard way. By unifying command, training and communications, consolidation reduces bureaucracy, streamlines government and creates better coordination of resources.

I’ve heard only one individual in the region describe October’s fire response as “near perfection” (not a phrase I’d use to describe the loss of more than a 1,500 homes; just ask a family who lost one). In major fire events like the Cedar Fire and in day-to-day operations, our fire and emergency services network needs to be seamless. While it’s true that several fire districts have opted out of the first phase over legitimate funding concerns, those same districts are still at the table, by and large supportive of the concept and eager to observe the change.

In the last two weeks, I’ve been asked the same two questions about

consolidation: 1. How are you going to find the estimated $24-26 million to pay for it? 2. What’s the hold up?

To the latter: there is no hold up. Although I can certainly understand why most people aren’t especially familiar with laws governing the reorganization of public agencies — heck, if I wasn’t on the LAFCO board, I might be among those nodding off in the audience too — reorganization is a legal process that requires a multitude of service reviews, micro and macro studies and opportunities for the public to weigh in. Time consuming? Yes. Foot dragging? No.

It took four years of analysis, subcommittee work and a lot of research to get to LAFCO’s significant vote.

To the former, stay tuned. That’s not a dodge. It’s a genuine request. (Yes, I can already hear folks frantically typing away about Prop. 172 dollars.)

Here’s something to keep in mind, since the Cedar Fire, San Diego County has gone from a government that had completely washed its hands of fire protection in the 1970s, to a government that’s invested almost $120 million toward improved fire protection and emergency medical services. This includes spending $8.5 million every year for equipment, training and staffing in areas that rely heavily on volunteer firefighters.

And, parallel to the consolidation process, a new effort launched last week is investigating how to buy and scatter 50 new fire trucks around the region to be used only during large fire emergencies.

While I agree with fire officials who are saying that the County’s truck initiative needs to be more research-based and consider the nature of diesel equipment; whether bulldozers or water tenders are preferable to trucks in some areas; whether dead tree removal should be a higher priority, along with many other legitimate questions about the proposal, I happen to think the truck proposal can, indeed, be investigated in conjunction with the consolidation process. At the very least, it serves as important proof of the County’s deeper and growing commitment to improved fire protection.

I believe that 2008 will be the year that our region’s fire protection system moves from holes to whole. What’s needed most is for residents to demand better.


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