Monday, May 5, 2008 | When county Supervisor Ron Roberts stood in front of a podium last month and unveiled a proposal to lease three firefighting planes for the county, it came as a complete surprise to many of the county’s top fire protection experts and local politicians.

Indeed, despite leading a committee tasked exclusively with assessing the region’s wildfire preparedness needs, Roberts had not brought the proposal to the committee for discussion before docketing it for the Board of Supervisors’ approval. Nor had he confided in his committee co-chairman, Mayor Jerry Sanders, whose spokesman said the mayor was surprised by Roberts’ proposal.

In essence, Roberts bypassed the official process set up in the wake of last year’s devastating wildfires to assess the region’s firefighting needs. In doing so, he rankled local fire protection experts and some of his political colleagues, who questioned Roberts’ motives in unveiling the plan and said San Diegans have been denied the opportunity to properly discuss and debate the proposal.

And some local fire experts have serious concerns about the plan, which Roberts has introduced in partnership with Supervisor Bill Horn. They questioned whether fixed-wing aircraft are San Diego’s top priority for fire protection and pointed out that the plan does not answer serious and basic questions like which local authority will administer the new planes, where they will be based, and how the region will protect itself outside of the three-month lease Roberts has proposed.

“It was classic Ron Roberts grandstanding. That was one proposal being put together by the group, and Ron just picked it up and ran with it — as only Ron can do,” said Steve Erie, a political science professor at University of California, San Diego, referring to a group of local experts, the San Diego Regional Fire Safety Forum, which has been advising Roberts’ committee. Erie is a member of the group.

“What if you have them (wildfires) now, outside that window of leasing opportunity? You’re dead. But it was a headline grabber, and unfortunately that’s how things are done in this town,” Erie added.

Roberts didn’t return repeated calls for comment.

Roberts’ proposal, which will go before the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday, includes leasing two large Bombardier C-145 Super Scooper planes, amphibious aircraft capable of scooping 1,600 gallons of water from the sea or a standing water source and dropping it directly onto a wildfire. In addition, the plan calls for leasing an Aero Commander 690, an aerial supervision plane, for 150 days during the hottest and driest time of year.

Because of their range and the volume of water they can carry, the Super Scoopers are extremely effective at battling wildfires quickly and hitting them early. That’s something San Diego has had difficulty doing in past years because the county’s wildfires often start in the rural East County, many miles from where local firefighting resources are based.

Los Angeles County has leased two Super Scoopers for the last 15 years. Officials at the Los Angeles County Fire Department gushed about the planes, saying they can stand up to extremely high winds and are very effective at tackling large wildfires.

“We’re really lucky here in Los Angeles that the Board of Supervisors and the fire chief have put the money forward for the program,” said Anthony Marrone, chief of air operations for Los Angeles County. “That’s not easy to do, but it’s important.”

But, as Los Angeles County Fire Chief P. Michael Freeman pointed out, the Los Angeles County Fire Department already has an arsenal of other firefighting equipment, both aerial assets and engines and personnel on the ground. The Super Scoopers augment an already impressive wildfire attack team that’s owned and operated by the county and that includes 11 helicopters, a leased helitanker and 25 fire engines reserved as strike teams to hit wildfires early and hard during Santa Ana wind conditions.

San Diego County doesn’t even have its own fire department.

Instead, much of the county is protected by a patchwork of small backcountry fire departments and volunteer firefighters. The county Sheriff’s Department owns two helicopters that are equipped for fire suppression, but has no reserve engines and no strike teams. The city of San Diego owns one firefighting helicopter and has one more on order.

In the wake of last year’s wildfires, San Diego’s politicians instigated various committees and commissioned several reports to establish which of the many competing fire protection needs should be first on the county’s list of priorities.

Various proposals have been discussed via those forums, including buying 50 reserve fire engines that could act as a strike team for wildfires or hiring dozens of new fire safety inspectors to ensure homeowners clear the brush around their homes. In concert with these discussions, the county has been assessing the viability of forming a countywide fire department.

Roberts’ sudden push for the fire planes places his fellow supervisors in a tricky political situation this week. If they vote against the plan, opting instead for another fire protection option, they risk coming under criticism if San Diego has severe wildfires between September and November that get out of control.

But if the supervisors vote for the plan, they risk signing off on a proposal that they acknowledge has received little public scrutiny and has not been fully vetted by local experts.

Jeff Bowman, a former San Diego Fire Chief and a vocal critic of San Diego’s fire protection efforts, questioned whether the Super Scoopers are the top priority for the region. While he said he supports any extra funding for fire protection, Bowman said San Diego needs to learn how to walk before it can run.

“This is a tool that you get when you already have good staffing and good aerial assets. Once you have those you can go out and get these specialist planes,” Bowman said. “You build your system from the ground-up and then you buy these specialty items.”

Bowman’s concerns were echoed by San Miguel Fire Protection District Chief Augie Ghio, president-elect of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs’ Association.

“The real question here is whether you build the foundations of the house or if you just start doing the finishing work right away,” Ghio said.

Still, Ghio said the San Diego County Fire Chiefs’ Association endorsed Roberts’ plan Friday but with some caveats. He said the group had several reservations about the proposal, but that in general the fire chiefs support any move that will bring additional fire resources to San Diego.

Ghio lamented that Roberts’ plan wasn’t given a public airing in which the region’s experts would have been able to offer their input and expertise.

“I always think the best way to do these things is by vetting them through an established process, through a group of experts that’s been brought in for their opinions and insight,” he said.

The proposal was given some retrospective discussion during the fourth meeting of the San Diego Regional Fire Protection Committee on Thursday. The committee voted to support the proposal, which must be approved by the county Board of Supervisors.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob, who sits on the committee but was not allowed to vote on the plan because she will vote on it at the Board of Supervisors, cited CalFire statistics that show 75 percent of large fires in San Diego in the last seven years have flared up outside of the three-month window that would be covered by Roberts’ plan.

Jacob said in an interview that she wanted to take a close look at Roberts’ proposal before committing to spending $3 million of taxpayers’ money. The short time-span of the leasing proposal is just one concern she has, Jacob said, and she said she had not been consulted before the plan was docketed for the Board of Supervisors meeting.

Greg Cox, Board of Supervisors chairman, said he had not been consulted about the proposal either. He said it’s important for any new fire protection measures to be carefully examined by experts.

“None of the members of the Board of Supervisors has any background or technological understanding of firefighting,” he said. “I give credit to Ron Roberts in that he’s done his homework on this, but it hasn’t really had any vetting or review.”

And Cox said he’s also concerned that the $3 million will only help protect the county for three months of the year. He said he doesn’t yet know whether that’s a more effective plan than the many other proposals he’s heard, such as buying more fire engines or hiring more inspectors.

“We do need to make some decisions, but this came at the last minute. It might be a good plan, I don’t know,” Cox said.

One thing all the players in the county’s fire protection debate agree on is that Roberts’ proposal is not a panacea. The Regional Fire Protection Committee continues to discuss both short-term and long-term options for boosting fire protection, and Ghio said he hopes the issue doesn’t fade into the background, helped along by Roberts’ short-term solution to an increasingly long-term problem.

“I only hope we’re not reacting to the fire we just had. That fire’s over and we should really be planning for the future based on facts and analysis,” Ghio said. “If we just do this, one time, for three months, what are we really going to gain?”

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

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