Emerging conventional wisdom says the response to this week’s wildfires was infinitely better than it was during larger disasters in 2007 and 2003.

But County Supervisor Ron Roberts said things could have been even better.

In 2008, he pushed a countywide parcel tax increase that would have funneled roughly $50 million a year to wildfire prevention and firefighting support. It needed two-thirds of voter support but got a hair under 64 percent.

“Locally we would have tripled the amount of aerial equipment,” Roberts said in an interview for this week’s VOSD Radio podcast. “We have four helicopters. Our capacity to put water on a fire from our own locally controlled equipment would have gone up, I’d say, by a factor of two or three, easily. Easily.”

The tax increase, Prop. A, would have charged residents a base rate of $52 per year on their property. It would have increased for very large parcels but couldn’t have exceed $1,000 per year.

Of the $50 million, half would have gone to a regional agency and the rest to local agencies, such as the 18 cities in the county. The city of San Diego could have seen about $13 million a year, Roberts said.

Former Mayor Jerry Sanders supported the measure, Roberts said, but the firefighters union mostly sat the campaign out, and a former fire union head actively opposed it because he thought it wouldn’t generate enough money.

As for voters, Roberts said the people who had the most to gain were the least supportive – and vice-versa.

“The people who needed it the most, in the rural areas, were the least supportive,” Roberts said. “No one would remember but the highest vote in support of the initiative was Coronado. … You know, really two-thirds of the whole community was going to be subsidizing the most dangerous areas, and those areas, for whatever reason, were the least supportive.”

The measure failed, and the county didn’t get the $50 million in annual funding.

Yet, its response to the handful of fires that burned thousands of acres and dozens of structures mostly in northern San Diego County this week was still better than its response to more severe disasters  in 2003 and 2007, Roberts said.

For instance, he said crews can now draw the outlines of a fire in minutes rather than hours, because of equipment and communications improvements.

“The person that’s in charge has to make the final decisions, where to send the fire trucks, where is the most dangerous area, what’s happening with respect to our utilities and are there major transmission lines that are threatened,” Roberts said. “All of a sudden, he can sit down at his or her computer, that commander can sit down, and has a vast array of information that we didn’t have at all before.”

I'm Andrew Keatts, a managing editor for projects and investigations at Voice of San Diego. Please contact me if you'd like at andrew.keatts@voiceofsandiego.org...

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