Saturday, Oct. 11, 2008 | Augie Ghio sports a fine moustache and an encyclopedia-like knowledge of local fire protection issues. He is fire chief of the San Miguel Consolidated Fire Protection District, ex-homeland security director for the city of San Diego and president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association.

The 56-year-old firefighter has been on the front lines of fire protection in the region for 32 years. He’s a fixture on just about every commission, committee or other group that’s tasked with improving San Diego’s preparedness for wildfires and for the day-to-day chore of keeping residents safe from fires. Now, he’s neck-deep in the effort afoot to create a countywide fire agency.

We sat down with Ghio to talk about Proposition A, which would impose a parcel tax on residents to pay for improved fire protection; about how he would spend $20 million on fire protection if he was given it tomorrow; and about just how dry the county is this year.

Just how dry is it out there in the East County, compared to last year?

Well, we’re dealing with similar conditions. We’re still in a drought, we had less-than-normal rainfall again and we have three large areas of San Diego County of old, unburned vegetation. So, with the dry winter, with the warming trend that we’ve been having, and with the Santa Ana’s coming this weekend, conditions are becoming prime for another fire season that’s going to be busy.

What’s currently going on with the creation of a countywide fire department?

Right now, we’re trying to establish a community service area that will formally collect all the underserved departments, except for the Julian-Cuyamaca area, into the umbrella of the county. That’s going forwards, that’s called the Fire Enhancement Plan.

So, is that basically corralling together a bunch of small fire departments, but not including some larger ones like, for instance, your department, San Miguel?

Correct. That’s phase one. There is another phase, phase two, that will be coming up, once this is done, that will include the Rural Fire Protection District, which is just east and south-east of my district. The hope is, over a period of time yet to be defined, that there will be the funding and the political will to include even more agencies as we go forward.

So that effort’s completely separate from Proposition A?

Correct.

But the money you would get from Proposition A would help to act as a catalyst to move that effort along?

Yes, and if Prop. A passed, that would be another incremental step towards that regionalization effort for the fire services in San Diego County. And our desire, from the Fire Chiefs Association, is that they would merge, under one organization, the current Fire Enhancement Program and this new fire agency that would be created by Prop. A.

If Proposition A doesn’t pass, how much money will the county have to front to keep the Fire Enhancement Program going?

Right now, the Fire Enhancement Program has a total of about $15.5 million that the county has made available. So they have enough funding to do the oversight and the management right now. Now, that’s a real good start.

Why is there opposition to the creation of a countywide fire department? To outsiders, it would seem perhaps that a larger countywide department makes sense because of the economies of scale and because other counties like Los Angeles have their own fire agencies?I don’t think people are necessarily against it. I think people don’t know about it because Prop. A hasn’t exactly been out there in the mainstream.

I think part of the problem, from the fire services, is that we remember back in the early 1970s when the county withdrew from fire service. The trust that they’re going to be around long-term is still in the back of people’s minds. The trust of government, that’s one of the issues.

But I think we’ve seen that we have a Board of Supervisors that, especially after the last two catastrophic fires, appears to have some of the political will to get this done.

Talking of the county, will San Diego County stop allowing people to build in very fire-prone areas that don’t currently have organized fire departments?

I believe we’re going to continue to see some level of building in the fire-prone areas. The question is, how do you safely build and do you develop the infrastructure to protect those homes?

If you’re building more residential or multi-family dwellings, off of an existing emergency response platform, then you’re overtaxing the platform. You need to build more fire stations; you need to provide more boots on the ground.

That’s the part that has not happened to any great degree. That’s the problem. We have updated our codes and ordinances to make sure that when people build in that urban-interface area, that they’re more fire-resistant, whether it’s the structure itself, the building standards, or the landscaping, the defensible space.

But that doesn’t do it alone. You still need firefighters, you still need equipment, you still need training, you still need enforcement. As those areas get older, then people start not taking as much care of their property and re-landscaping. It’s a long-term issue, not a short-term issue.

What do you think of the private firefighting services that are out there now?

I think there is some trepidation in the fire service now in embracing those, because we believe there’s a false sense of security with those companies. First off, they’d have to get out there far in advance of the fire, before we closed the roads and stopped allowing access to those areas and before the evacuations have taken place. You can’t let them in, because then they’re at risk, and we’d have to guarantee their safety.

We’re grappling with this all through the state of California right now, and we’re putting together a subcommittee with the county fire chiefs to work on this specific issue.

I’m not saying it’s a bad idea to have these companies that can gel your home and coat the brush behind the houses, but it has to be done at the right time, under the right conditions, and they may not be able to do that if the fire is traveling fast in wind-driven events.

To your knowledge, have we used the superscooper aircraft yet that the county leased for the fire season?

Yes. We used them on Wednesday at the Camp Pendleton fire. That was the first time and we were excited that they were utilized.

I talked to Deputy Fire Chief Brian Fennessy from San Diego last night, who told me they did make a number of drops, they appeared to be effective and they were re-watering from the Pacific Ocean. So, the early indications appear to be that they actually worked and they worked fairly well.

If a philanthropist gave you, personally, $20 million tomorrow to spend on fire protection, what would you spend that money on?

Well, on a regional basis, I would spend part of that money on education of preparedness and readiness programs. Regardless of if I had $20 million, $100 million or $200 million, during catastrophic fire situations, or any all-risk all-hazard environments like flood, earthquakes, fire, etc., people need to be better prepared to take care of themselves.

So, educating them on a regular basis, year-after-year, several times a year, and having community events where you help them develop their family disaster plans, their evacuation plans — we need funding to do that to a much better degree than has ever been done before.

In my opinion, I believe that we could save more lives and even save more property through prevention, preparedness, vegetation management. A lot of that responsibility is on the homeowner, but we need to hold their hand going through it to some degree. I would spend a great deal of that $20 million on that county-wide.

The other piece I would spend some of it on is sitting down with a core group of fire chiefs and doing a much more detailed analysis of what else is needed. Maybe it’s surge protection, maybe it’s putting together a pool of dollars that are available so we can up-staff brush rigs and structure rigs during our red-flag warning days when we know that we’re going to have Santa Anas, and have those pre-staged around the county.

Wasn’t that that what the Regional Fire Protection Committee (a group chaired by County Supervisor Ron Roberts and San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders in the wake of the 2007 wildfires to assess the region’s fire protection needs) did?They did, but I’m not so sure it was as comprehensive as it needs to be.

As we were coming up on Prop. A, the fire commission looked at what we need regionally, but they forgot that a big piece of it isn’t just the catastrophic wildland urban-interface fire, it’s how to improve daily operations in the local jurisdiction. How do we get fire apparatus to the scene of a rescue accident or a fire, or the medics to the scene of a heart attack victim in a better way?

Can you name one local government or agency that you don’t think is doing enough to protect San Diego from wildfires?

I’d say that none of us are doing everything we can.

We all could improve. Every fire agency, every law enforcement agency, every emergency management organization could do a better job of public education and preparedness and readiness.

We need to start thinking outside the box.

— Interview by WILL CARLESS

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