By Miriam Raftery
June 20, 2014 (San Diego)--Hundreds of millions of dollars in emergency upgrades made over the past decade helped to minimize losses in last month's devastating wildfires and enable a successful response by the County of San Diego. That’s the conclusion of the After Action Report prepared by County staff and presented to Supervisors this week.
The report cites dramatic improvements made since the 2003 wildfires struck our region, and what additional upgrades could be made as the region braces for what appears to be a severe fire season. It stops short, however, of addressing the biggest gap in coverage for rural residents.
“Our region is much better prepared than it was in ‘03 and ‘07,” said Chairwoman Dianne Jacob. “That $285 million investment since 2003 has made the County, for the first time, a strong partner with the other fire agencies in the region and the public, most importantly, the public recognizes that.”
County staff assessed what additional steps could be taken to better prepare the region for wildfires, and came up with a list of nearly two dozen ideas, which are included in the report.
Supervisors voted Tuesday in support of increasing funding from $250,000 to $750,000 for the “Call When Needed” Program, which allows the County to pre-position contracted firefighting aircraft during extended Red Flag conditions, and spend $50,000 to purchase and pilot thermal imaging devices, which can provide valuable information to the firefighters about fire perimeters and hot spots. Supervisors also suppored the allocation of $400,000 for a fire safety public awareness campaign this year.
The Supervisors and the report did not, however, address the problem of fire stations closed in rural areas due to a lack of enough volunteer firefighters, who have been hired away by other agencies at a faster rate than replacements are currently being trained. Rural firefighting experts have voiced concerns over what would happen if a major firestorm were to occur in East County and whether residents could be left unprotected if Cal Fire crews are dispatched to the wildfires, leaving no one to respond quickly to house fires or emergency medical calls.
Fourteen separate fires, including the Bernardo, Poinsettia and Cocos fires, burned 26,000 acres across the County from May 13 through May 22. It was the largest wildfire incident since the 2007 Firestorm. The fires destroyed an estimated 65 structures in the cities of Carlsbad, San Marcos and unincorporated San Diego County.
Officials estimate that the cost to fight the fires was $28.5 million and private property damage is likely to exceed $29.8 million.
Overall, the report states, “The timing, intensity and sheer number of fires in May 2014 put our local first responders, governments and residents to a particularly difficult test. As is in San Diego’s character, though, this challenge was met in a way that made residents proud of their community. First responders from throughout the region responded quickly and effectively; local governments mobilized and joined in a coordinated response; and neighbors helped neighbors, looking out for each other and helping one another wherever possible.”
The After Action Report states “significant adjustments and improvements were made to overall county operations, including the creation of the San Diego County Fire Authority, improved regional collaborations, and development of the County’s Advanced Recovery Initiative” since the 2007 Firestorm.
The County’s Office of Emergency Services staffed the Operational Area Emergency Operations Center to monitor, at first, and later manage a regional emergency. At peak staffing, more than 45 federal, state, and local departments and agencies were represented in the central command center during the fires.
In one key role, the County relayed emergency information to the public, after it had been verified and confirmed, by sending it to media and posting directly to its SDCountyEmergency.com website, Twitter and Facebook. The County’s emergency website received more than 2.4 million pages views during the fires.
The County’s short-term recovery process was initiated shortly after the fires began and continues to help fire victims with financial assistance, damage assessments, debris removal and rebuilding information among other services.
At the meeting Tuesday, Supervisors accepted the report and voted to support all its recommendations. They also recommended that staff convene a workshop within 45 days for elected and fire officials at the local, state and federal level to develop recommendations to improve fire protection in the County. The Board also recommended staff hold a meeting between first responders and emergency managers at the local, state and federal level to standardize policies during red flag conditions, then report back in 90 days with recommendations.
Additional ideas for improving the region’s response included working with fire officials to provide fire perimeter maps to the public and media more quickly, reviewing methods to increase multi-lingual communications during a disaster, creating a document that clarifies the roles and responsibilities of County emergency management for arriving out-of-area incident management teams and training hundreds of additional County employees to work in shelters, Local Assistance Centers and as 2-1-1 operators during disasters.
In a related action, the Board also voted to support State Assembly Bill 922 to provide relief to victims of wildfires. The bill would add the May 2014 fires to the specified disasters eligible for income tax deductions for those that lost property in the fires.