Learning from May wildfires: What can we do differently?
By Supervisor Dave Roberts
One month after the May firestorms blackened more than 26,000 acres across North County, the Board of Supervisors received an “after-action” report on June 17 that makes nearly two dozen recommendations to improve regional firefighting capability and public outreach.
The 102-page document, published by the county’s Office of Emergency Services and available at www.readysandiego.org, also summarizes damage and costs of the May fires.
One of its top recommendations is to triple our aircraft budget — from $250,000 to $750,000 — and to explore the possibility of buying a third Sheriff’s Department helicopter for firefighting.
Another recommendation is to improve the delivery of emergency information to county residents, especially to those who don’t speak English.
During the weeklong emergency — our largest disaster since the firestorms of 2007 — 14 separate fires stretched resources and prompted a declaration of a state of emergency from Gov. Jerry Brown.
The response to the fires is estimated to have cost $28.5 million among the region’s agencies. Property damage is pegged at $29.8 million, the report states. All told, 46 single-family homes and 19 other structures were destroyed in Carlsbad, San Marcos and the unincorporated area.
While the first of the 14 fires, the Bernardo Fire, was sparked by construction equipment and considered accidental, the cause of the other fires remains under investigation, the report states.
What can we do better?
The report recommends assigning twice as many county employees to work the phones at the 2-1-1 emergency information call center. Last month, I was happy that a member of my staff was able to volunteer at the center.
Other recommendations include quicker publication of maps showing fire boundaries and improving information delivery by employing more foreign-language speakers and more “partner relay” groups to reach non-English speakers.
The report also calls for finding ways to improve the public’s compliance with evacuation orders and warnings, of which more than 149,000 were issued during the wildfire event.
At our meeting, I appreciated San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer’s appearance and support for the existing mutual-aid system, in which neighboring jurisdictions made firefighting resources available to one another.
I also appreciated a directive from Chairwoman Dianne Jacob that the county host two workshops focused on implementation of the report’s recommendations.
The report noted the county’s significant investments and improvements in fire services since 2003. Yet, to be clear, the county is only one of the region’s fire agencies. Carlsbad, San Marcos and the city of San Diego each responded boldly to fires within their jurisdictions.
Still, the county has spent almost $285 million since 2003 to increase firefighting resources and has established great cooperation with the Navy and Marine Corps, which brought helicopters to the firefight last month to join state and county aircraft.
As my colleagues and I deliberated after receiving the report, I suggested purchasing $400,000 worth of infrared equipment to detect hot spots.
I appreciate Chairwoman Jacob’s suggestion to spend an additional $400,000 to promote preparedness and highlight the importance of maintaining defensible space around homes and structures.
Dave Roberts represents the Third District on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.