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Lawmakers pose questions to fire officials


Last updated 12/13/2007 at Noon

Probing questions surfaced at a legislative summit last week over whether reinforcements – by ground or by air – could have moved faster to fight wildfires that gripped Fallbrook and other San Diego County communities in October.

The breezy conference rooms set against green hillsides offered a laid-back setting for the summit held by the legislature’s Rural Fire Protection Working Group. But the warm winds and drying vegetation – conditions in which wildfire can travel at eight mph and scorch an acre a minute – drew a wary eye from summit participants.

To reach the workshop, many of the participants drove through the scorched path of the Rice Canyon Fire, which destroyed 206 residences after beginning east of Interstate 15 in the Rainbow area.

Blackened trees and fields showed where wind-driven flames jumped freeway lanes and hop-scotched their way through a mobile home park and 9,500 acres of estate tracts, oak forests, nurseries, groves, nature preserves and scrub land.

The session, aimed at dissecting responses to fires that crisscrossed much of Southern California, drew nearly a dozen lawmakers and aides and about 100 state, regional and local fire officials to Pala Resort and Casino.

There, in presentations and question-and-answer sessions, state fire officials detailed how, when and where 15,616 firefighters were deployed in engines, bulldozers, airplanes and helicopters.

“The people who were making these decisions know the business,” Ruben Grijalva, director of Cal Fire, which is also known as the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said in his presentation. “In short, we faced some of the worst fuel and wind conditions California has ever faced.”

But that didn’t stop the panel from posing penetrating questions over delays deploying Marine helicopters, San Diego County’s fractured network of firefighting agencies and whether the region received its share of engines and crews flowing in from Northern California, 31 other states and Canada and Mexico.

At one point, state Senator Dennis Hollingsworth (R-Murrieta) questioned whether some engines and crews were mistakenly siphoned off Interstate 5 to other fires as they journeyed toward the state’s southernmost county.

“San Diego seems to be penalized by geography,” Hollingsworth said. “I know there is going to be a lot of analysis of the response.”

The session was billed as the first of several to occur in the Legislature and other forums over the next few months as reports are finalized and recommendations made. The legislators who served as organizers and panelists said the informational session would prove useful if new laws or procedures are needed.

Although the summit primarily focused on rural fire protection issues, speakers from the onset emphasized that growth trends, dry vegetation and wind patterns have obliterated any perceived boundaries.

“Rural fires are an urban threat,” said Michael Ott, executive director of a San Diego County boundary-setting agency that has presented a plan to link many rural fire districts. “We’ve seen that in LA County, Riverside County and here in San Diego County. We’ve seen fires begin in the backcountry and threaten all the way to the coast.”

Ott, who heads the Local Agency Formation Commission, noted that about 950,000 acres in rural San Diego County are deemed “unserved” because they are outside boundaries of local fire districts.

“It’s more complex than it has ever been,” said Ott, who added that land use decisions, building codes, fuel reduction requirements and other measures must also be considered. “I think everything needs to be put on the table here.”

In order of occurrence, the Rice Fire was the 16th of 23 massive fires to burn swaths of Southern California during the recent firestorm. Another 228 fires were extinguished without property losses or significant acreage burned, state officials said.

Of the 251 fires reported during a weeklong stretch, about 50 occurred in Riverside County, 45 in San Diego County and 30 in San Bernardino County, state officials said. Altogether, the fires forced a half-million people to flee flames that seared 518,023 acres and claimed ten lives.

The session prompted tribal leaders, who have frequently battled flames in and around their reservations, to call for changes. Some tribal officials said obstacles blocking emergency service agreements have prevented them from protecting fire-prone lands outside their reservations.

“We’re just looking to come to the table with what we have,” Viejas Fire Chief Don Butz said in his remarks.

The daylong workshop, which included numerous presentations, was praised by several organizers and participants.

“We need to get to the bottom of what happened,” said Hollingsworth, who served on a state blue ribbon panel formed after wildfires destroyed thousands of homes in San Diego County in 2003. His sprawling 36th Senate District stretches from Lakeland Village to El Cajon and takes in such communities as Fallbrook, Temecula, Murrieta, French Valley, Poway and La Mesa.

“Every time we learn more,” he said. “I’d like to hear the full story, not the pieces.”

State Assemblyman Kevin Jeffries (R-Lake Elsinore) said he was equally pleased with the workshop held by the panel he oversees.

“As a legislator, you get ideas from people who are out there putting their lives on the line,” said Jeffries, a longtime volunteer firefighter whose 66th Assembly District takes in all or portions of Fallbrook, Bonsall, Valley Center, Julian, Temecula, Murrieta, Wildomar, Mira Loma and Riverside.


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