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County reviews wildfire protection progress

It has been six years since the October 2003 fires and two years since the October 2007 fires. The San Diego County Board of Supervisors used part of their November 4 meeting to review the progress the county has made in wildfire protection since then.

“I don’t think the awareness of fire and the danger of fire has ever been higher in this region,” said Board of Supervisors chair Dianne Jacob.

Since 2003, the county has spent more than $180 million on fire protection measures.

“These dollars translate into enhanced protection and quicker response time,” Jacob said. “Each one of my colleagues has played a very significant leadership role.”

While Jacob cited the spending since 2003, in 1999 the county committed $200,000 in Community Development Block Grant funding each year for needs of the fire service and an additional $200,000, derived from the savings of refinancing the county’s Otay prison, into a trust fund for the capital needs of fire agencies (CDBG funds are restricted to eligible neighborhoods, although the trust fund awards have no such restriction).

Building code upgrades and a Consolidated Fire Code which incorporated the fire codes of each of the independent fire protection districts were also county actions which preceded the October 2003 fires.

Some of the spending since 2003 has involved equipment or technology. The county has purchased more than 30 pieces of equipment, including 13 water tenders and 13 Type II fire engines, which were provided to fire districts and volunteer fire departments. The county also purchased two firefighting and rescue helicopters and a 4,000-gallon fuel truck (the county also worked with the California Department of Fire and Forestry to staff the helicopters with CalFire personnel).

In 2008 the county approved a seasonal lease of two Superscooper firefighting fixed-wing aircraft along with a tactical aircraft, and this year the enhancement program was modified to a year-round “call when needed” approach which included payment of stand-by fees for pre-positioning of aircraft prior to a forecasted wind event.

The county has implemented “Reverse 911” to notify residents by telephone of the need to evacuate and a “211” information center to provide public information which does not require an emergency dispatcher. The county also expanded and upgraded its Emergency Operations Center and has increased the capacity of its Regional Communications System.

In 2005 the county supervisors initiated and funded contracts with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection to augment service in areas not adequately protected. The county has also implemented a program to remove dead, dying, and diseased trees. While a vegetation management program has not yet been implemented in March 2009 the supervisors accepted a report which identified a toolbox of vegetation management methods.

Additional construction standards have been passed since the 2003 fires, and the county has worked with the military to enable the use of military aircraft to combat fires.

The county supervisors also worked with San Diego County’s Local Agency Formation Commission to reorganize fire protection agencies in unincorporated San Diego County. In 2008 territory not within the boundaries of a public agency but served by a volunteer fire department was incorporated into the San Diego County Regional Fire Authority, and future phases will consolidate County Service Areas formed for fire protection and fire protection districts which seek to transition into zones of the regional fire authority.

The volunteer fire departments retained their autonomy and collaborate with the paid firefighters covering those areas.

“I think they’re all far better prepared today than they were before,” said Supervisor Bill Horn.

“I think we have a lot of good news here today,” said Supervisor Pam Slater-Price.

Jacob noted that some of the preparedness measures would also cover earthquakes, terrorism, tsunamis or other catastrophes.

“We’re raising our level of preparedness for any kind of disaster,” said Jacob.

The county supervisors also commissioned a study to determine the most optimal deployment of firefighting resources. That study is currently in the data collection phase and has a target completion date of April 2010.

“We’re not as best prepared as we can be,” Jacob said.

The other county supervisors also saw areas where improvement can be made. “We still have areas in the County of San Diego that haven’t burned for over 60 years,” Horn said. “I think we can get ahead of the problem.”

The vegetation management plan involved various stakeholders including the scientific and environmental communities as well as the fire service community. Slater-Price noted the need for private-sector involvement in fire prevention programs.

“All the stakeholders have to get involved,” said Slater-Price.

Supervisor Ron Roberts noted that the “511” traffic information service and global positioning system transmitters only indicate the amount of traffic and provide no warning of freeway or other road closures.

California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention division chief Howard Windsor was at the November 4 meeting and told the supervisors that he would try to have improvement of that data incorporated into the next CalFire evaluation which includes areas for potential improvement.

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