Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2008 | On a soggy morning earlier this month, ex-San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman stood on a hillside in Rancho Bernardo next to a bare patch of land where there used to be a home. He held up a stack of documents several inches thick.

“Much of what government does following a wildfire is this. These are the documents that were created after the Cedar Fire,” Bowman said.

Peeling off a thin sliver of pages from the fat bundle of documents, he added, “As one of the government officials who participated in the development of these documents, I can tell you that out of this stack, about this much resulted in any action.”

The pile of reports produced since 2003’s wildfires on what the city of San Diego needs to do to better prepare for firestorms got a little thicker Monday. With the release of the city’s official report on the October 2007 wildfires, the region’s politicians have 72 more pages to help them establish what went wrong last time and what they need to do to save people and property when future disasters strike.

But many of the recommendations in the city’s newest report bear a striking resemblance to those laid out in the city’s report into the 2003 Cedar Fire, which was released in 2004. Indeed, some of those recommendations, such as training more senior firefighters in nationally recognized wildfire fighting techniques and buying additional radios, crop up virtually unchanged from 2004 in the latest report.

City officials said there are many reasons why the same problems exist in the city’s Fire-Rescue Department more than four years and one wildfire after they were laid bare. A combination of the city’s political and financial stagnation in the wake of the Cedar Fire, a lack of clarity as to how the city should enact and fund 2003’s recommendations and a simple lack of cash for city fire protection explains the similarities between then and now, officials said.

And this time will be different, said spokesmen for the Mayor’s Office and the Fire-Rescue Department. The city plans to use its latest report, along with other feedback on the 2007 wildfires, to produce a strategic plan that not only spells out the city’s fire protection problems but also how to solve them and how to pay for fixing the city’s problems.

“This is a continuous cycle of improvements,” said Fred Sainz, the mayor’s spokesman. “It’s never going to be ‘game over.’”

A matrix at the end of the new after action report lists all the recommendations the Fire-Rescue Department made for itself in 2004 and lists whether or not those goals have been met. Of the 82 recommendations, 33 of them have been completed, 18 are currently in process or partially completed and 31 have not been dealt with yet.

The latest report contains recommendations on training, purchasing equipment, staff organization and the provision of emergency medical services, among others, that were laid out in detail back after the Cedar Fire. The report also contains several sections that are entirely new, and has new recommendations on issues such as creating large evacuation centers like the one set up at Qualcomm Stadium last October.

Like the previous report, the new document details problems the department faced during the fires and describes things the department did well. Like the 2004 report, it doesn’t contain any information about how much its recommendations would cost to implement or when they should be put into effect.

Sainz said former Mayor Dick Murphy can be blamed for paying little attention to many of the recommendations he was given four years ago. The Fire-Rescue Department did a great job outlining what it needed to accomplish after the Cedar Fires and it handed the detailed report to Murphy who “said thank you and went out to lunch,” Sainz said.

Maurice Luque, a spokesman for the Fire-Rescue Department, agreed with Sainz.

“True, there wasn’t really a focus on achieving recovery (in 2004),” Luque said. “Financially, the city was in a quagmire. We did what we could, as a department, but this time there’s a lot more focus.”

Sainz said that, crucially, the 2004 report was long on recommendations but short on strategy as to how to fix the problems it identified. Despite the lack of political will in the first two years after the Cedar Fire, or perhaps because of it, the city never designed a strategic plan to start implementing the fixes its Fire-Rescue Department had designed for it, Sainz said.

Augie Ghio, who helped draft the Cedar Fire report and is now chief of the San Miguel Fire District in East County, said that’s pretty accurate.

“With the 2003 firestorm report, the direction to staff was to come up with as comprehensive a list of actions as possible, but there was no direction to come up with a priority plan as to how to do it,” Ghio said.

Things will be different this time, Sainz said. Now that the after action report has laid out a laundry list of the fire protection problems facing the city and what the city needs to do to solve those problems, the next step will be to draw up a comprehensive strategic plan that lays out how to implement those changes, and how to pay for them, he said. The Fire-Rescue Department has already started to do that, Sainz said.

There’s another element to the process, however.

The buzzword these days when it comes to fire protection in San Diego is “regional.” Officials at the city and county said municipal governments around the region need to work together to figure out how to solve the problem of San Diego’s wildfires. That’s complicated somewhat by the fact that the county doesn’t have a consolidated fire department and that there are several competing theories about how to protect the area from firestorms.

But before the city of San Diego starts to deal with some of the big ticket items identified in its latest report, like building new fire stations and buying expensive firefighting vehicles specifically to better prepare for wildfires, officials said, the city should wait and see what comes out of the Regional Fire Safety Committee. That panel, which has met once, is led by Sanders and county Supervisor Ron Roberts, and is tasked with tackling fire protection from a regional standpoint.

One of the proposals the committee is considering involves buying 50 fire engines to act as a strike force against fires during the long, hot wildfire season. The introduction of such a team would significantly change the paradigm of wildfire protection in San Diego, so city officials said they want to wait until they’ve completely established what they need to do before they start to work out exactly how to do it.

Please contact Will Carless directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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