Reader Watcher wrote:

“Can the County afford to create one big countywide fire department and put all our volunteer firefighters on a salary? How will the county pay for consolidation without a large tax increase? Should just the rural residents who have chosen to live on the interface between the suburbs and the wild open space areas – who will benefit – be the ones to pay for increased fire protection through surcharges on their property taxes, or should all taxpayers in the county pay?”

You’re definitely living up to your name, Watcher. Good questions.

No. The county cannot single-handedly afford to fund one big countywide fire department or to put all volunteer firefighters on a salary. So much of the unincorporated area is state and federal land. Those levels of government bear some responsibility for allocating more funding to fire protection. Fortunately, some members of the state and federal delegations are working on this. I think the notion of the one big fire department probably needs some clearing up too. The first phase takes our spottiest areas and makes them whole. Ultimately, however, the region’s overall network would likely take the form of a joint powers authority with a degree of autonomy left to larger departments. You might look at the Orange County model, as it is interesting.

Also, the LAFCO plan doesn’t turn current volunteers into salaried firefighters. In fact, the commission went to great lengths to ensure that unpaid volunteers are still welcome and still utilized. It calls for possibly offering stipends to incentivize additional volunteers.

Now, should people who chose to live in the backcountry pay surcharges for fire protection? Well, now we’re getting into that age old debate about raising taxes versus shifting funding priorities. I am not the first person who happens to think the government gets enough of our money. I think we can try to reorganize our system of fire protection without raising taxes. Raising taxes should be a last resort for this particular service because public safety is, in my mind, the single most important core competency of government.

Also, many unincorporated area communities have, indeed, implemented property tax assessments. East County Fire, for example, passed one several months ago.

Reader JF wrote:

First, what about hand crews? They’re among the most effective tool during normal fires, though not quite as effective during wind events. My second question is a little tougher. What about zoning changes to disallow building in historical fire corridors? We know the fire will always burn in certain areas, why keep building there?”

By hand crews, do you mean brush crews? According to CalFire officials, there are more brush crews in the backcountry now than ever before. I agree that brush crews are critical. Right now, the county is investigating whether county inmates can assist to help clear brush to better protect communities from wildfire. Under the direction of CalFire, State prisoners already clear brush and even help fight larger wildfires in the region. I want to find out if state crews can benefit from the assistance of county inmates because backcountry fuel loads are still extremely heavy and tinder-dry. The Sheriff’s Department, the Probation Department and Cal Fire are analyzing this as we speak.

Unfortunately, I don’t think we can say for sure whether there are such things as clearly defined historical fire corridors. I wouldn’t necessarily think of the city of Del Mar as an historic fire corridor, but it nearly became one in October. Given the region’s unique climate and our two giant firestorms, I’ve learned that, for safety’s sake, we have to view every corner of our region as an historic fire corridor.

About zoning: It the challenge of good government to strike that delicate balance between responsible development and critical conservation. When government goes too far in restricting a property owner’s legal rights, costly litigation ensures (See: Roque De La Fuente). When government can’t go far enough, there can be water problems (See: Old Barona Road) and traffic problems (See: Wildcat Canyon Road) and huge issues with regard to fire safety (See: the proposed Jamul Casino). I think the current land use system strives to weed out unsafe development. The California Environmental Quality Act requires input from fire officials on virtually all dwellings and the insurance rating system discourages irresponsible projects.

Do you think we can do better? Raise your voice.

Reader jr wrote:

“Please do an inventory of the fire trucks in the east county that were not used during the recent fires due to no “volunteers available or other reasons”. You may not need as many trucks as you think.”

You might very well be right. This seems like a good question to pose to the Task Force on Fire Protection and Emergency Medical Services. This body is made up largely of rural fire agencies. As a chair of the task force, I’ll be glad to bring it up at our next meeting. Thank you.

— DIANNE JACOB

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