California Fires Fuel Squabbles About Readiness

October 24, 2007; Page A1

As property damage mounted from wind-fueled Southern California wildfires that have destroyed more than 1,600 homes in recent days, squabbles broke out among government officials over their preparedness and access to firefighting resources.

The patchwork of at least 15 fires began in coastal Malibu Sunday morning. But, aided by some of the driest conditions on record, the blazes have quickly spread across more than 300,000 acres of brush-covered hillside in seven counties.

Hundreds of thousands of people have been evacuated, many of them in the San Diego area, where some of the hardest-to-contain fires are still spreading. Tens of thousands of local residents sought refuge at locations such as San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium and the historic Del Mar Fairgrounds racetrack just north of the city.

President Bush declared a federal emergency in the seven counties, a move that is expected to speed relief efforts. With the Bush administration determined to apply lessons learned from its missteps in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Monday set up an office in Pasadena, Calif., to coordinate federal, state and local aid to the region.

Yesterday, FEMA Administrator David Paulison and his boss, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, traveled to California to consider what more can be done. President Bush is expected to visit too, probably tomorrow.

A firm estimate of property damage is impossible while the fires continue to burn, but the Insurance Information Network of California, a trade group, said insurance claims are likely to reach at least $500 million. That would still be far below the $1.7 billion in claims paid after a 1991 fire in the hills of Oakland, Calif., which destroyed 2,900 homes and remains the most destructive brushfire in California history.

But with many of the fires showing little sign of being brought under control as of yesterday afternoon, state and local officials raised doubts on several fronts about the area's readiness for the blazes that frequently accompany fall in Southern California. Four years after some of the state's worst fires ever tore through San Diego County and city, local government officials have taken limited steps to improve preparedness and still haven't adequately staffed or funded fire departments, these critics say.

The city of San Diego has been mired in a financial crisis stemming from a pension-fund deficit. In recent years, voters twice rejected proposals to increase hotel taxes as a way to boost funding for local fire and police departments -- in part because of public concerns about how the city council would manage the extra funds. In 2006, the city's fire chief, Jeff Bowman, resigned in frustration over the city's inability to fund $100 million in new fire stations and equipment.

Maurice Luque, a spokesman for the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, said the city, which covers more than 300 square miles, needs to add 22 fire stations to the current 46, and more firefighters, in order to meet its goal of responding to incidents within five minutes. The city now has fewer than 1,300 firefighters, about the same number as five years ago -- and they haven't received pay raises in three years.
Strong winds continue to fan wildfires that have burned unchecked in Southern California for three days. Video courtesy of Reuters.

"San Diego's financial challenges affect all departments, including the fire department," Mr. Luque said.

Still, Mr. Luque pointed to improvements that have helped save lives, if not buildings, during the current fires. Since the last big fires, the city and county have implemented Reverse 911, an automated communication system that has been used in recent days to contact about 350,000 households and urge them to evacuate. Reverse 911 is a unit of PlantCML, a closely held Temecula, Calif., company. The San Diego fires caused one death, compared with at least 15 in the area's 2003 fires. There were reports of four additional deaths in the region.

According to a San Diego County spokeswoman, a total of about 513,000 residents have been ordered to evacuate and 12,000 have been advised to do so.

Rick Sanborn, chief executive officer at a bank in a San Diego suburb, packed up his family around noon on Monday, hours before mandatory evacuations went into effect in his Carmel Valley neighborhood. "It took about four hours to go through the whole house, and then I videotaped everything that was left," said the 45-year-old Mr. Sanborn.

After that, he, his wife and their two children drove to the coastal community of La Jolla, where they are staying at his father-in-law's country club. Though the evacuation order for his gated community of 440 homes remains in effect, a neighbor returned there yesterday afternoon and called him to report that all was well.

Steve Erie, a political science professor at the University of California in San Diego and author of a forthcoming book on the city's political and fiscal turmoil, said he believes that as far as the 2003 fires are concerned "the only lessons applied were those that don't cost any money....In terms of new fire prevention or fighting capabilities, we have barely made any progress."

Mr. Erie noted that unlike Los Angeles County, San Diego doesn't have a countywide fire department. He said the county, outside San Diego's city limits, is a "hodgepodge" of operations that range from relatively well funded to what he calls "bake sale-funded departments."

Meanwhile, marshalling existing resources has proved complicated. With the arrival of six C-130 military aerial tankers, state officials said at least 25 tankers and 40 helicopters were deployed around the seven-county region to dump fire-retardant chemicals. Some two dozen more aircraft were preparing for action or were already on the way. But with state, county and local agencies overwhelmed by the sheer number of fires -- and flames in some areas fanned by winds approaching 60 miles per hour -- there were escalating concerns about the availability and effectiveness of airborne tankers.

"We've had some difficulty getting air assets," said Chip Prather, the fire chief of Orange County, which is located south of Los Angeles. Early yesterday his department fought a 32-square-mile blaze using 500 firefighters and 100 fire engines. "With more air resources, we would have been able to control this fire," he said.

Mr. Prather said it wasn't until the fire had consumed more than 18,000 acres that the first aircraft arrived to aid ground crews. "There [are] not enough resources to go around, either air or ground resources," he told reporters.

State Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, who represents parts of Orange County, complained during a news conference about the way firefighting aircraft were distributed. "I do believe we have been penalized" by failing to get aerial tankers earlier, he said, alleging that the previous success of fire crews in keeping a lid on the main Orange County blaze prompted state officials to send those tankers elsewhere.

Mr. Spitzer also criticized state coordinating officials for a lack of planning that prevented local fire commanders in other jurisdictions from tapping the help that was available. On Monday, he said, "San Diego was eligible for air support and [local officials] didn't even know it."

A spokesman for the governor's office said aircraft are being dispatched