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Since the Cedar Fire struck in 2003, officials have bragged about the improvements they’ve coordinated for the region’s firefighting efforts. But this week, as fires again tore through San Diego County, they threw up their hands.
Arid heat and Santa Ana gusts would drive the region’s fate this fire season, they said. Firefighters, over many hours and days on the fire lines, would combat blazes that were at the mercy of Mother Nature — not the full array of man’s firefighting engines and aircraft.
It was a nod to the inevitable: Despite best efforts, the greatest strategy for weathering the current disaster was to run away from it.
As the fire spread out across the county, from Camp Pendleton to the Mexican border, officials ordered the evacuation of about 513,000 people and advised others downwind from the fire to anticipate doing the same. No amount of firefighters could subdue the blaze’s wrath.
“We can’t stop this fire, they can’t stop this fire, so our goal is to get people out of the way,” said Ron Lane, the county Office of Emergency Services’ director, on Monday, when fires began to hit their strides up and down the area.
That the region’s fate remains at the whims of wind speeds and the humidity index more than the staffing or equipment spent combating fires appears to mark a new reality in local debates over fire readiness.
It’s a noticeable change for a community that has wrestled to repent for the destruction of the Cedar Fire.
The region’s shortcomings came to light in that fire. Deficient technology, a lack of preparedness, and a dearth in manpower have been recited when city and county governments have been leaned on to bolster their firefighting ability. The lessons of 2003 shan’t be repeated, elected officials promised.
But those same officeholders and fire officials alike shrugged off notions that vast improvements in those areas would have prevent the expansion the 2007 blazes. The Witch, Harris and Poomacha fires and others swiftly carved through giant swaths of the backcountry and into some suburban areas because of driving winds, dry weather and the abundance of brush and grassland to fuel the inferno. Those wildfires couldn’t be fought head on, they said.
Similar to a hurricane or tornado, the tack taken in these wildfires was to shoo people to safety and wait for the wreckage to run its course.
Firefighters helped by picking manageable battles, based on their risks and rewards. They rescued people in danger, warded flames off homes with their hoses, and dug trenches or set controlled burns to help stem a fire. But they acknowledged the fire’s spread across the county’s bone-dry landscape is unpreventable.
“The short answer is that no matter how many firefighters you could have thrown at this fire, it wouldn’t have changed the outcome a lot,” said Jeff Bowman, the city of San Diego’s former fire chief. Bowman left the city after his requests for more resources went unheeded.
Bowman advocates that San Diego and other local governments should bolster their firefighting forces. He sees the aid Fire Departments offer during a major conflagration — such as rescuing residents and putting out flames once they reach a home or building — as important, yet peripheral to the firestorm itself.
To employ a workforce and fleet of fire engines large enough to stop the spread of a fast-moving wildfire would be unrealistic, Bowman said.
“You cannot staff for the firestorm. Nobody can afford that, and I don’t suggest they do,” he said.
The handling of the Cedar Fire was second-guessed in the months and years afterward because of area’s shortfalls in resources and lack of coordination.
The city of San Diego didn’t provide enough money for the necessary fire engines, stations, and communications equipment. The county was unwilling to consolidate the smaller departments in the rural backcountry into a comprehensive department, on par with other counties. Local officials were unable to coordinate the use of military resources to help fight the emergency.
Perspectives are mixed as to whether the necessary improvements that were made or ignored since the Cedar Fire have made a difference during this week’s disaster.
“We need to understand that the fires are going to come again, and we’re never going to have the resources to stop them,” said fire ecologist Rick Halsey, director of the California Chaparral Institute. “How you solve it is to understand that, appreciate the threat it poses, and when an order is given to evacuate everyone needs to get out.”
The will to elevate firefighting to a top financial priority for the city wilted shortly after the 2003 fire. Within a year of the Cedar Fire, two separate hotel-tax increases were marketed as efforts to help boost fire protection funding, but voters turned them down.
The city of San Diego remains short-staffed and without the equipment that Bowman and others, such as Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s blue-ribbon committee on wildfires, said needed to be added. Even after his call for more firefighters, San Diego has only one firefighter per 1,466 residents, while Phoenix (997 residents per fire fighter), Dallas (702) and San Francisco (421) employ more favorable ratios.
The city’s communications systems are antiquated. Mayor Jerry Sanders boasted recently that the city’s fire engine reserve was 25 percent larger than during the Cedar Fire, but the quality of those engines is disputed by the firefighters union. The city, with the help of corporate friends, gained one fire helicopter, but is still short of three Bowman recommended.
While the city’s deficiencies are often discussed in the context of the Cedar Fire’s aftermath, Bowman said they are peripheral to a discussion about firestorms. Instead, they are more vital to debates about the day-to-day operation of the city’s fire agency, he said.
“It’s partially a separate conversation,” he said.
The county Board of Supervisors has inched toward establishing a countywide fire department, to be on par with every other major county in California, but it has not made the leap. Even with better organization in East County, the departments could have potentially made strides in coordinating evacuations and protecting structures, but wouldn’t have likely made an impact on the slowing the fire’s growth.
And after hearing criticism from 2003 that fire officials didn’t enlist the help offered by the military — particularly with respect to aircraft that would douse water and retardant from above — local politicians tried to clear the way for that coordination this week. It still took days for military aircraft to be used to fight the fire.
Even so, it’s unclear whether air support is the panacea that was being drawn up by critics complaining about the military’s late inclusion. During a fire’s early stages, when air drops would be most helpful, firestorms enable blinding smoke and gusts that make aircraft operations too dangerous.
“It’s disingenuous,” Halsey said. “No one is going to put a pilot’s life at risk to save a house. It’s just not going to happen.”
While the effectiveness of the firefighting efforts this week remains unclear, the cooperation of the different agencies involved in combating the firestorms has been the accomplishment most clearly articulated by public officials this fire season. After city, county and state officials were seen as territorial in the Cedar Fire, spokespeople from all levels of government have comfortably stood alongside and congratulated one another for their work this time around.
“In terms of fighting fire and communication with each other, they’ve done a bang-up job,” said University of California, San Diego economist Richard Carson, who studies government responses to disasters.
But Carson was quick to criticize the local governments. The county’s emergency services website, he said, is unhelpful and lacks the capacity needed to respond to the millions of concerned county residents who would be seeking information about the fires. The opening of several shelters around the county, he said, was “haphazard.” The Reverse 911 program, which was used to issue more than 350,000 phone messages to county households, however, was a success, he said.
Bowman also applauded the Reverse 911, but said the county could have employed a system that also notified cell phone users if it had spent more money.
“What they did worked. It just could have been better,” he said. “There are evacuation capabilities out there that are much better.”
Carson argued the severe weather curbed the extent to which local governments could act, but that federal agencies, if they made it their priority, could potentially have the reach and the might to prevent firestorms of this size.
By predicting a firestorm was on the horizon this weekend and quickly mobilizing massive resources — water-dropping planes, bulldozers for digging fire trenches, and throngs of workers — from other corners of the nation, some of the fires could have been contained in their early stages, he said.
“I don’t think there’s any sort of local area that will ever have that sort of personnel or equipment,” he said.
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