Fire Chief, City and County leaders debate pros and cons of fire
By Miriam Raftery
|2007 San Diego wildfires destroyed over 3,400 structures
and killed 15
people (photo: La Mesa Fire Dept.)
1, 2008 (SAN DIEGO) - “We have to stop turning to others
to solve our problems,” said Ron Roberts, Chair of San Diego’s
Board of Supervisors. He urged voters to support Proposition A, the fire
parcel tax initiative on the November ballot.
“The most recent state budget had money for 150 new fire trucks.
We expected 15. We were told we would get five,” Roberts added,
noting that during the 2007 firestorms, only three aircraft fought fires locally
during the crucial first 24 hours: all San Diego city and county helicopters.
Proposition A will ask voters to approve a parcel tax increase averaging $1
a week per parcel to fund creation of a regional fire authority, increase firefighting
forces, add equipment and improve communications. “You can’t
get a cup of Starbucks coffee for that,” Roberts noted. “It’s
a good plan and it warrants your support.”
The majority of fire chiefs and many elected officials support Prop A. But
not all—and some have leveled heated criticism against local political
“I think the County of San Diego neglected fire protection,” said
La Mesa Councilmember Dave Allan, a retired firefighter and former head of
the San Miguel Firefighters Union. “A lot of things are jacked
up here,” added Allan, who opposes the tax.
|Ron Roberts, San Diego Board of Supervisors Chair, fielded
questions at a Congressional committee hearing in San Diego on the wildfires
and Allan spoke at a California Special Districts Association (CSDA) meeting
in Kearny Mesa September 18, where fire experts debated the pros and cons of
the ballot measure. Proposition A, which would cost $150 million, allocates
half the money for regional firefighting and half for local districts. If
passed, he predicted, “When we have the next devastating fire, we can
get to it sooner with more force…We can minimize the destruction and
August Ghio, president of the County Fire Chiefs Association and Fire Chief
in the San Miguel Fire District, said the majority of fire chiefs also support
the measure. “We don’t have the time to wait,” he said
in response to criticisms that the measure is imperfect.
San Diego is the largest county in California that does not have a regional
fire department. “We’ve been talking about consolidation for years
but haven’t taken any reasonable steps,” said Ghio.
The County has had several severe blazes that would once have been considered
once-in-a-career fires for firefighting professionals, Ghio noted, including
the Normal Heights Fire (which burned 23 homes), the 2005 Cedar Fire (2,400
homes) and the 2007 Harris, Witch and other wildfires in San Diego County which
collectively burned 3,421 homes.
“We did as good a job as anybody can,” Ghio said of firefighters’ efforts, “but
we need one thing…money.” He asked people to vote with “hearts
and minds” and to remember recent history. “Don’t forget
what it smelled like. Don’t forget what it tasted like. Don’t forget
we evacuated 500,000 people.”
The City of La Mesa opposes the fire tax proposal, though Allan said that
La Mesa is not opposed to a County fire authority.
He accused the County of misallocating funds generated through passage of
the statewide ballot Proposition 172 in 1993, after the state took property
tax funds from local governments to fund schools and created a gap in public
Prop 172 ads promised to guarantee funds for firefighting, as well as provide
funds for police protection. Voters approved Prop 172, which increased
sales tax by a half-cent statewide.
But in San Diego, out of $235 million in revenues generated by Prop 172 last
year, zero dollars were spent on fire protection. “I think Ron
can take $50 million out of Prop 172 funds each year and get this going,” Allan
San Diego County’s Board of Supervisors decided to give 95% of Prop
172 funds received to the county, leaving just 5% for cities (later increased
to 5.6%). Last year, La Mesa residents paid $6.1 million into this sales
tax pool, but got back just $257,000.
Noting that La Mesa spent $8 million last year to protect just nine square
miles, while the County spent $15.5 million for a whopping 3,600 miles, Allan
observed, “We’re totally getting hosed. I fear the city is
going to end up paying for another Prop 172 scam.” Even local Indian
tribes have spent more on fire equipment to protect County residents than the
County has spent, he added.
Allan faulted County leaders for eliminating brush cutting programs in the
back country. He also leveled criticism at the City of San Diego, noting
that Prop A proposes funds to buy 23 new fire trucks—with 19 of those
going to the City of San Diego.
“Where is the responsibility of the City Council to equip those to fight
fires in their cities?” Allan asked, noting that East County cities and
fire districts such as Heartland are the first responders to fires that can
burn into San Diego if not stopped early. “I challenge the County
to explain – and get that $50 million.”
Roberts insists that there is “no fund of money out there.” He
noted that prior to Prop 172’s passage, the state took money that forced
deep cuts in sheriff and probation department budgets—not firefighting. “If
La Mesa wants to sue us they can do that, but let’s get this done,” he
said, urging approval of Prop A. “We can’t afford to wait
and have another fire like last year.”
At a Congressional hearing convened after the 2003 fires in San Diego, former
San Diego Fire Chief Jeff Bowman also criticized San Diego County officials. “This
is the largest urban area without a County Fire Department,” he testified. “Someone
should be held accountable for that. My recommendation to the County
Board of Supervisors is they buy 50 fire engines and disperse them throughout
At that hearing, Senator Diane Feinstein warned that San Diego officials should
expect more catastrophic fires in the future—and take action to protect
homes and lives.
“What happens if you keep building in these areas without firefighting
services?” she asked, noting that when she was Mayor of San Francisco,
half the city’s budget was spent on police and fire protection. “You
can solve these problems,” she concluded. “Every other county
does in the state. Every other city. People down here have to get involved
and stand up.”
A May 29, 2008 report by the San Diego County Grand Jury found further fault. “Even
though the City of San Diego lies within an area prone to wildfires, it is
not accredited by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International (CFAI)
because the City’s Fire Rescue Department does not meet national standards,” that
report stated. “Twelve of the City’s 45 engine districts
exceed the standard nine square mile service area. Forty-six percent of the
time the department cannot meet the national five-minute response time. Rancho
Bernardo, the San Diego community that lost 365 homes in the last fire, has
one fire station that was built in 1969. It serves 28 squares miles, the largest
response area in the City…According to national standards, three fire
stations are required for an area of this size.”
|Mayor Jerry Sanders hopes voters will approve Prop A
to increase funds
for regional firefighting.
Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders spoke with East County Magazine at a September
press conference in El Cajon, where an agreement was announced to allow City
helicopters to fight fires at night over state-own lands.
Sanders said that unlike Prop 172, Prop A has safeguards in place to assure
that funds can only be spent on firefighting and regional communications. “There
will also be a regional oversight board to keep an eye out on how that money
is spent,” he added.
The County’s half of Prop A funds would be used to build up a regional
firefighting force to include fire engines and fire trucks, helicopters and
other firefighting aircraft.
Asked what the City of San Diego intends to do to build more fire stations
or meet federal minimum standards for number of fire stations per capita, Sanders
replied, “We have a plan in place—and we will get it much faster
if we get Proposition A.”
Miriam Raftery is a national award-winning journalist who has covered
wildfire issues in San Diego County for the past two decades.