Thursday, Sept. 24, 2009| In a climate of shrinking budgets and employee furloughs, Smokey the Bear has risen to the forefront of San Diego’s fire protection strategy.

The iconic bear’s message of fire prevention — usually televised between Saturday morning cartoons — has resonated with San Diego’s policymakers at a time when building a larger firefighting arsenal would take tens of millions of dollars and governments are cutting back rather than ramping up.

There has always been a battle over firefighting resources, even in good times. With the recession pounding local government, the region is unlikely to see an immediate growth of fire suppression resources like firefighters and equipment. Instead, civic leaders are promoting preventive measures like clearing brush, community education and additional planning.

“Even if we were to build one or two more stations in the county, how much would that really impact a catastrophic fire? Probably not very much,” said Augie Ghio, chief of the San Miguel Consolidated Fire District. “If you build toward responding to catastrophic fires, you’ll never have enough dollars.”

There have been some efforts to increase funding to fire agencies through tax increases, but they have failed, even narrowly. Last November, residents struck down a tax proposal for additional firefighting funds by 3 percent less than the necessary two-thirds vote.

Regional fire agencies have made some purchases since 2007, formed new alliances to cover unincorporated areas and completed more training, but the highlighted area of expansion has been fire prevention. Alongside a few helicopters, fire prevention has been the selling point of civic leaders to residents who expect progress after the 2007 firestorms.

Earlier this year, fire agencies across the county distributed 400,000 DVDs to residents about preventing wildfires and defensible space for housing. San Diego Gas & Electric contributed $20,000 for volunteer t-shirts and Farmers Insurance paid $250,000 for the DVDs’ production and printing costs. Organizers called it one of the county’s biggest public education efforts ever.

Earlier this month, Mayor Jerry Sanders touted the city’s additional management of canyons where wildfires could lead to substantial residential damage. He said the city was more prepared than ever, partly because it cleared seven times as many acres last year than the 2007 fiscal year. The additional projects were funded through federal grants totaling about $3.3 million.

CalFire and county crews have also increased their land management for fire prevention with additional federal dollars. CalFire has managed 625 acres so far in 2009, up from 450 in 2007. The county Department of Planning and Land Use received $11 million in federal grant money solely aimed at removing dead or dying trees in the Julian and Palomar areas.

Although the additional acreage sounds like improvement, researchers are skeptical if rural land management will make a difference. A new report from the Center for Biological Diversity shows anecdotal evidence that removing dead trees in rural areas does not significantly impact a wildfire’s intensity. Researchers say the Santa Ana winds have played a larger role in determining whether a fire will grow to catastrophic proportions.

“Despite differences in sites and forest types, previous studies and our results provide compelling evidence that when fire does occur, stands with considerable tree mortality due to drought and insects will not burn at higher severity than stands without significant tree mortality, either in the short or long term,” the researchers reported in the peer-reviewed Open Forest Science Journal.

The researchers question whether dead tree management really improves wildfire protection. Even so, managing all backcountry vegetation was a major recommendation of the county’s after action report from the 2007 fires. The report advised the Board of Supervisors to create a master plan for vegetation management, which it approved earlier this year. The master plan identifies regions with hazardous levels of vegetation and aims to help local leaders prioritize their efforts.

Leaders now have direction with managing vegetation but are still looking for guidance on suppression tactics. There’s no plan for building the region’s capabilities in unison so the Board of Supervisors commissioned a consultant earlier this year to assess the county’s resources.

Supervisor Dianne Jacob said the county is focused on both prevention and suppression, not prioritizing one over the other.

“Once we have the deployment study completed, we’ll have a more focused and science-based view of existing resources and how to improve regional fire service into the future,” she said in an e-mail.

Policymakers might end up investing more money in fire suppression in the future but probably not before the consultant’s report and definitely not before this fire season.

Please contact Keegan Kyle directly at keegan.kyle@voiceofsandiego.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/keegankyle. And set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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