Here we go again. Huge “unexpected” California brush fires destroying hundreds of homes — not to mention lives lost. After the conflagration subsides, publicity-seeking politicians will overrun the area, consoling disconsolate homeowners — great photo ops. These political opportunists will then demonstrate their generosity by doling out OPM to victims, taking credit for the “charity” they provide.
And then, after a couple months of this posturing, no significant preventative measures will be adopted — even LOW COST non-coercive preventative measures. And yes, there ARE some cost-effective reforms that could be adopted that likely would save many and perhaps most of the houses now burning to the ground.
I’ve been writing about such reforms since the 2003 San Diego fire destroyed 330 homes in my Scripps Ranch subdivision. Indeed, I did a paid, five part, pro-con op-ed debate series with a big government advocate in the Los Angeles Times. It’s no longer available on their website, but fortunately I saved the entire debate in a blog article I did. The wisdom I imparted then (sadly) applies just as much today.
The most significant reform I have proposed — over and over through the years — is the establishment of a large supplementary volunteer fire brigade for just such conflagrations. We use some prisoners to fight brush fires — why not use well-trained volunteers as well?
No, I’m not here talking about volunteer fire departments — only about an emergency SUPPLEMENTAL fire brigade made up of trained volunteers — and supervised by professional firefighters. Aside from brush fires and perhaps a major earthquake, all firefighting duties would remain the exclusive purview of our full-time “firehouse” firefighters.
It’s not an unheard of idea. Several European cities have these supplemental volunteer brigades. And they lack our terrible brush fire threats.
I’m not even talking about doing what the gutsy prisoners do — going into the canyons to directly fight the fast-moving blazing infernos. That risky option might well be considered for such a brigade, but more training and better equipment would be in order. Instead, I’m looking at low hanging fruit — volunteer firefighters in suburban areas delivering a house-saving version of “whack-a-mole” firefighting — putting out the embers that start fires.
Our 2003 Scripps Ranch disaster is a fine example of why supplemental firefighters can do a world of good. But let me be clear — houses built adjacent to brush areas are almost impossible to save in such a fully-blazing, Santa Ana wind-driven fire. Such homes sometimes can be saved with extraordinary effort, but again, I’m looking at the low hanging fruit. That “fruit” consists of the homes a block, two blocks, even a MILE from the canyon fire. The danger to these houses is NOT a wall of flame, but rather embers falling on abandoned homes.
The training AND equipment needed to fight ember fires is rudimentary. Wet blankets, shovels, garden hoses, smoke masks — these are the types of “tools” needed to effectively extinguish ember fires. Some additional training is needed, of course, but what is NOT needed is the full-time firefighter training and requirements.
This innovation is not based on theory. This is proven fact. In the 2003 fire that did great damage in my county, 14 people died in my San Diego County. ALL were in dangerous, isolated rural homes often serviced by one lane roads. They got trapped.
In spite of the fact that — with no preparation or training — quite a number of suburban people stayed to defend their San Diego County homes, not a SINGLE one was killed — or even significantly injured. Suburbia is usually blessed with multiple exit options — and less fiery venues to retreat to WITHIN and OUT OF the neighborhood if necessary (school playgrounds, parks, swimming pools, parking lots, etc).
How effective were these ad hoc volunteer firefighters? VERY.
With no training and the tools I mentioned, the typical Scripps Ranch homeowner who stayed to save their abode often saved not only their own home, but the house on either side of their home. One fellow I know successfully put out the ember fires at SEVEN homes in his neighborhood.
I think it’s important that such a reserve firefighter brigade be commanded by pros — just like our reserve police officer cadre. Someone knowledgeable has to decide when to fight a fire, and when to run. But the great bulk of this low-level reserve firefighter brigade can and should be volunteers.
Of the 330 homes lost in my 2003 neighborhood fire, the type of ember firefighting I’m describing probably would have saved 250 or more homes. Only a relatively few destroyed homes were abutted right up against fire-fuel-rich canyons. Most burned homes were lost to ember fires.
But shouldn’t our professional firefighters take care of this function? Nope. They can’t. they are too few in number and are tasked with being on the front lines battling the blazes.
Moreover, just when we need all our firefighters and their equipment, too often many have already been sent off to fight a fire in another part of the state. Such was the case with our 2003 and 2007 San Diego fires.
In Scripps Ranch in 2003, we didn’t see a SINGLE firetruck for HOURS after the fire approached our neighborhood. We felt abandoned. We were entirely on our own — with the cops doing their part, dutifully telling us to leave (which is NOT mandatory, but good advice for most).
Another professional firefighter problem is that when the off-duty firefighters are recalled (about 2/3 of the total firefighting cadre), there are complications. First off, their primary concern is their own family — that might well delay some.
Also, most firefighters live far from where they work. Many firefighters in San Diego County live in neighboring counties — especially north up the I-15 interstate highway — because they drive to work only 6-7 days a month (doing double shifts some of the time).
If the north-south I-15 is closed because of a fire, these “Temecula” firefighters have to take another 90 minutes returning to work — driving over to the I-5 to head south. Worse yet, they be be trapped in the stopped, blocked freeway traffic. Again, this is not theory — this happened in the last fire!
BTW, when the off-duty firefighters finally arrived at the city of San Diego reserve firefighting equipment center, the trucks often were not ready to roll — no planning ahead. Some lacked functioning hoses. And this was a scandal that our press never covered.
Such a reserve firefighter brigade would not rely on folks whose homes were threatened. They would be volunteers from other areas not threatened. In my San Diego County, if there’s a North County fire, then the San Diego city and South Bay regions would send their volunteer brigades. Those volunteers residing IN the endangered areas would usually have other priorities to deal with.
So, bottom line — our professional firefighters need our help. But the sad part is that they definitely don’t WANT our help. For brush fires, they want “boots on the ground,” but only UNION boots on the ground. Their goal is to get California governments to hire more professional union firefighters at $180K+ cost annually — to sit around at more and more firehouses 24/7 until — every few years — a major brush fire sweeps the area. And even then, they will not be able to save most homes in such a fire.
CA firefighter union bosses won’t stand in favor of this volunteer help, and usually actively oppose such an innovation. The truth is, they’d rather that your home burn down than let volunteers help fight brush fires. Our politicians must act on their own — the unions will oppose this innovation.
NOTE: To read quite a bit more on my suggested brush fire fighting reforms (and my debate opponents responses) in the LA TIMES, go to this link to my old article.