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Answering the call of the wildfires

California Senator Diane Feinstein held hearings of the Senate Interior Appropriations Committee in San Diego Nov. 28. The topic of the hearings was fire - specifically, San Diego’s recurring wildfire nightmare.

Using the high profile of her office, the senator - with help from assorted local officials, fire victims and experts - raised important challenges for our region.

It is now up to the local community to address for itself the very serious issues we face with fire preparedness.

There is ample evidence that we can do it. Following the firestorms of 2003, positive steps were taken to better prepare for wildfires.

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Most notably, the county invested in a reverse 911 system that, by most accounts, was extremely effective. The county also updated fire communications systems and cleared thousands of dead and diseased trees. Local municipalities purchased some new fire engines, and coordination of agencies was greatly improved.

What is clear now, however, is that even these efforts were gravely insufficient.

As we recover from another season of devastation, perhaps the political will exists to follow through on the recommendations of the blue ribbon commission that the state convened following the 2003 fires.

That commission’s most important reccomendations involved three big Fs: Fuel, Fire Engines and Federal Assets.

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Fuel: The commission found that conflicts between environmental laws and public safety laws allow too much fuel to build up in rural areas. The commission, which included Senator Feinstein, said that “Environmental regulatory requirements have failed to adequately address fire prevention and fuel management needs, which have contributed to conditions that will likely result in future conflagrations...”

Now that we’ve had another conflagration, the local community must come to creative solutions that will protect the environment but will also protect homes and lives.

Fire Engines: At a minimum, the San Diego area is 50 engines short. Former San Diego Fire and Rescue Chief Jeff Bowman has recommended that the county buy 50 engines and disperse them to local jurisdictions. More stations and firefighters are also needed, but 50 new engines is the place to start.

Federal Assets: Assets at every level of government were brought to bear with greater efficiency in 2007 than in 2003, but when Navy and Marine pilots are ready to fly and state red tape is keeping them grounded, we still haven’t learned our lesson.

Of course, getting our region fully prepared for the next fires depends ultimately on the most contentious “F” of all: Funds.

San Diegans have twice rejected tax increases to pay for improved fire protection. This is not because locals like fire; it is because they don’t trust city government with money. Local leaders now need to lead on this issue. They need to work hard to convince San Diegans that fire protection must have full funding. And they need to propose funding methods that the local community can accept. It is simply not tolerable that this most basic area of public safety is inadequately funded.

Finally, no coastal resident should entertain the thought that these issues affect only inland areas.

At the height of the fires, just one engine remained in San Diego to cover the entire city - down from a typical 46. This engine was being dispatched from University City to answer calls from as far away as the U.S./Mexico Border.

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“We were just lucky there were no major incidents,” San Diego Fire and Rescue Spokesman Maurice Luque told the La Jolla Light.

We’ll call that an understatement.

There is no doubt that wildfires are coming again. We cannot afford to keep relying on luck.