Last week, Robin Kaufman started digging through her closet, looking for a red blouse, the one with the lace, because she thought it’d look perfect with the suit she’d picked out.

She couldn’t find it, so she called her mother. Did she have it? Had she borrowed it?

No, her mother said.

And then Kaufman remembered.

The red blouse, like almost everything she once owned, was destroyed when her Rancho Bernardo home burned to the ground in 2007.

Five years later, she’s rebuilt and recovered. But now and then, something pops up, a reminder of what she lost.

In Kaufman’s life, there are two time periods: Before the fires, and after the fires. Listen for it, and you’ll hear the phrases spliced into her sentences — “… it was before the fires …” — as an easy reference.

Her loss doesn’t define her; she doesn’t call herself a victim. But you can see her emotions glistening in her eyes when she speaks about it.

I’m covering the District 5 City Council election this week, spending time with people like Kaufman, who is president of the Rancho Bernardo Community Council, a volunteer group. I’m embedding myself in the district to get to know its residents’ concerns, which I’ll take to Mark Kersey, the lone candidate for the district’s council seat being vacated by Carl DeMaio.

While I’m talking with Kaufman and another Rancho Bernardo volunteer, Valerie Brown, a chainsaw’s distinctive roar comes from over my shoulder. A man is strapped onto a palm tree in the coffee shop’s parking lot, cutting down dead fronds.

You can see Kaufman remembering the fires, you can actually see her seeing the destruction in her mind’s eye. She looks up in the air, at nothing specific, and describes how dangerous the dead fronds were when the wind whipped in 2007.

“You’re seeing fireballs in the air,” she says. “A horrible snowstorm, but it’s all red and orange.”

Those dead fronds caught fire, she says, and turned into embers that flew across streets and onto roofs, spreading the inferno that took her home and 364 others.

After the fires were out, Rancho Bernardo got three more fire marshals, Kaufman says, and the city still clears brush there. But as we’ve found in other council districts, the threat of wildfire in District 5, which burned in 2003 and 2007, is never far from the public’s mind. Kaufman says there’s plenty of room for improvement.

“Two major fires in the city of San Diego in District 5, and (Councilwoman) Sherri Lightner is the only one doing a fire preparedness day?” Kaufman asks. “We haven’t had that type of support. Maybe our next councilman will do that, instead of just pension reform.”

That’s a dig at DeMaio, who’s now running for mayor on a reform-City-Hall platform. But it’s also a dig at decades of San Diego governance. Rancho Bernardo’s fire station covers more territory (27 square miles) than any other firehouse in the city, despite sitting on San Diego’s eastern boundary with the backcountry, where fires often start. Because as we’ve reported before, as San Diego grew, firefighting didn’t keep up. It’s a trend that’s more obvious in one-firehouse Rancho Bernardo than anywhere else in the city.

Kaufman thinks the city should institute rules requiring dead palm fronds to be quickly trimmed. But that could be a tough sell at City Hall, where leaders have done the opposite. The city has repeatedly reduced its maintenance budget for 30,000 city-owned palm trees along sidewalks as a way to save money. As we noted in 2010:

The city has canceled contracts with private palm trimming companies. With broadleaf trees — oaks, eucalyptus, jacarandas — it only responds to emergency reports, like when branches and limbs obstruct stop signs and traffic lights.

Valerie Brown, a friend of Kaufman’s and director of the Rancho Bernardo Neighborhood Watch, is still angry that the city considered adding height limits to ham radio towers a couple of years ago. Ham operators said the proposal would have hampered their ability to communicate and coordinate community response during emergencies.

And it was an idea, the city said then, that was borne of the tall towers’ looks, and nothing else. People just didn’t like them blocking their views.

“The city was considering something from an aesthetic standpoint,” Brown says, “without considering what impact it might have on emergency response.”

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Valerie Brown

Other Key Issues, Big and Small

Here are a handful of issues Brown and Kaufman both identified as concerns at City Hall.

Communication with City Hall: Brown says it once took her 30 phone calls — yes, she counted — to the city’s Development Services Department to get a simple question answered. In the end, she says she only got her answer because a friend of a friend worked for the department.

Potholes: Brown says a friend broke her car’s axle on a Rancho Bernardo pothole. “It’s all band-aids and temporary fixes on the roads,” she says.

Public Transportation: Brown and Kaufman both asked a simple question that I’ll put to Kersey on Friday: Where’s the trolley or train line serving the Interstate 15 corridor? Brown told me a story about someone she knows who had to get a few miles south on I-15 to a class. The bus ride there took three hours, as did the ride home. An hour-long class turned into a seven-hour affair. “That’s something none of our City Council members have ever dealt with,” Kaufman says. “Carl (DeMaio) hasn’t. It’s something that needs to be addressed. We’re the forgotten area.”

Public Spaces: With a hot inland summer coming and the threat of power brownouts looming, seniors have few places to go if they need a respite from the heat. Kaufman says Rancho Bernardo’s library and rec center were both designated as “Cool Zones,” for just that reason. But because of budget cuts, she says they close at 2 p.m. Saturday and neither is available again until the rec center reopens on Monday. The library doesn’t open until Tuesday, she says.

Rob Davis is a senior reporter at Voice of San Diego covering the District 5 City Council race this week. Who else should he talk to? What are the big issues? What questions do you have for lone candidate Mark Kersey?

Contact him directly at or 619.259.0529.

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Rob Davis was formerly a senior reporter for Voice of San Diego.

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