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Are we prepared for a large-scale emergency?

By Scott Peters

Hurricane Katrina’s devastation of the Gulf Coast has some wondering if San Diego’s emergency preparedness is sufficient. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, has declared September National Emergency Preparedness Month, a time for people to reflect on the damage in the South, and to review their own disaster and evacuation contingency plans.

Our city’s hillsides and beautiful natural canyons are the main reasons people love living here. However, they also make us particularly vulnerable to brush fires. Even after lessons learned during the Cedar Fire of 2003, the threats remain. Last weekend, almost 200 acres of brush burned near Rancho Penasquitos. Only a fast and effective response kept any structures from being damaged.

But the threat is not limited to inland areas. Two weekends ago, a house under construction in La Jolla burst into flames. Although this fire was right next to the ocean, other homes were threatened by the presence of dry brush. A neighbor with a garden hose kept flying embers from becoming a disaster until firefighters could respond.

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The San Diego Fire-Rescue Department has assessed the canyons and open space in the northern areas of the city and has identified areas surrounding Carmel Valley, Rancho Penasquitos and Mount Soledad as having elevated fire risks. This is not to cause alarm but to give people as much information as possible to allow better preparation.

It is important for every person in San Diego to know what they will do and where they will go if they need to leave their home or business.

First, prepare safety plans for your own homes. There are many resources available to families in the preparation of their emergency plans. FEMA, the governor’s Office of Emergency Services, the city’s Fire-Rescue Department and the American Red Cross have Web sites that are excellent sources of information.

All of the organizations stress the importance of communicating with your family, friends and neighbors and developing contingency plans. Topics ranging from evacuation, public shelters, animal shelters and communication tools are covered by these sites.

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Second, be aware of and manage the hazards that may result from plants and brush around your home. Since the Cedar Fires, the city has been working on a comprehensive brush management plan that is effective to slow fire but still protect environmentally sensitive lands.

The plan would require a 100-foot defensible space between structures and vegetation. This not only reduces the size and intensity of the fire, but also allows the Fire Department time and space to mount a defense against impending fire. The Fire Department Web site and my office have instructions on how homeowners can identify and manage brush fire issues around their homes.

Finally, involve your whole neighborhood in safety and prevention. The city’s Fire-Rescue Department has a pioneering community training program called CERT, a volunteer training program that offers a free course designed to train citizens in safety preparation and how to respond to disasters. Some communities already have volunteer response teams, including Scripps Ranch and Rancho Santa Fe.

After training, CERT Team volunteers also act as information resources for the rest of the community on emergency response plans, evacuation routes and brush management.

I urge you to join the next CERT Academy. The volunteer training classes fill up quickly, so please contact CERT at (619) 533-3075 or access the Fire Department’s Web site to join the next six-week training session.

Although it is sometimes difficult to think about emergency preparedness, it is an essential component of creating a safer community.

I am committed to maintaining excellent city protection services. I urge you to make sure your own family is prepared for any type of future situation.

City Councilman Scott Peters represents District 1, which includes La Jolla. Call his office at (619) 236-6611.

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