CommunityPam's House Blend

The Firestorms In San Diego

My county’s canyons and suburbs are on fire.

Witch FireSan Diego’s TASC (which included me as a representative) had a meeting scheduled Monday with Rep. Brian Bilbray to Discuss ENDA; however, San Diego County’s Witch Fire (one of the over a dozen Southern California fires) eclipsed everything in his district. Suddenly, basic survival and San Diego community has become preeminent. To give folk an idea of how all-encompassing the fires just in San Diego have become, here’s some stats:

Santa Clarita Fire– During the 2003 Cedar fire in San Diego County, 50,000 people were evacuated. The 2007 firestorms have seen more than 580,000 people evacuated in San Diego County — evacuations multiplied by over a factor of 10.

– 500 plus homes have been destroyed by the Witch (sometimes called Witch Creek) fire.

– Almost 200,000 acres have been burned just by the Witch Fire.

Harris Fire - Chula VistaAnd, San Diego wasn’t truly prepared for this firestorm, even after having nearly five years to prepare. The Los Angeles Times reported:

San Diego officials say fire conditions Monday would have overwhelmed even a larger, better equipped firefighting force. They point to progress made in the four years since the devastating Cedar and Paradise fires, including a better communications system, more air support and an automated evacuation call system.

Southern California FiresBut little else has changed. Just one new city fire station has been built since 2003, and many of the area’s chronically underfunded fire departments still fall short of national standards.

Once again, firefighters here found themselves outrun by fast-moving fires that hopscotched the county.

[the bad and the good, as well as more pictures from the Southern California firestorms, after the break]

…A county emergency services plan completed in April optimistically called for 70,000 people to be sheltered at 670 locations. But by the end of the day Monday, the Red Cross had opened five shelters. Local governments and military authorities provided another 10.

Santa Clarita FireBy late afternoon, only 1,500 cots were available at the Red Cross shelters. Officials at the city of San Diego’s shelter at Qualcomm Stadium said they had some cots on hand, far short of what they needed to aid more than 500 elderly and infirm evacuees transported there — much less the 4,500 others who had converged at the stadium by Monday evening.

In northern San Diego County, evacuees found shelter at Escondido High School…Bowman had told San Diego city officials it would cost at least $100 million to add needed new stations and equipment and $40 million a year more to increase staff. That investment, he said, is what it would take to bring San Diego into compliance with national standards. Those guidelines call for a city of San Diego’s size to have at least 22 more stations than the current 46, and 1,300 firefighters, up from the 980 now on staff.

NASA ViewBut his appeal had no effect. Four months after the Cedar fire, a ballot proposal to boost hotel-motel taxes to pay for better fire protection failed to win voter approval. The City Council, mindful of the anti-tax mood of residents, has opted not to try again.

San Diego was recently denied full accreditation by the Commission on Fire Accreditation International, now called the Center for Public Safety Excellence, because many of its stations fail to meet the five-minute standard for arriving at major fires or calls for paramedic service.

Witch FireCoordination though, has been reported as a lot better this fire season that 2003 because of improved communication equipment. The Marines have been of much help with water dropping helicopters — because the air-firefighting coordinators now can talk to Marine aircraft, we have more firefighting aircraft available.  Better communication equipment is one of the best things out of the push for Homeland Security.

Qualcomm Stadium ShelterThe other thing that’s gone particularly well is the shelter at Qualcomm Stadium.  It stands in stark contrast to the SuperDome mess with the Katrina disaster — San Diego learned a lot of lessons from the Katrina mess in New Orleans.

For San Diego’s LGBT community, working on ENDA is pretty much on hold.  I’m safe at home in (Ab)Normal Heights, but so many in San Diego’s community are not.  I’m keeping my San Diego and Southern California communities in my thoughts.

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Autumn Sandeen

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