What Turns Fires into Disasters? Politics and Planning

Steve Erie is director of the Urban Studies and Planning Programming at the University of California San Diego. He is writing a book: Paradise Plundered, explaining how the hills around San Diego got developed.

Erie says that "Developers own most of the city councils. In Poway, in Escondido, what they do is put homeowners in harm's way. They're able to control zoning processes, and they're frequently behind initiatives that say no new taxes, no new fire services. It's insanity." "Politicians here have never met a developer they didn't like. It's a company town and it is largely run by the building industry and local politicians do their bidding."

Meanwhile, the builders don't build any more fire protection than they have to because people aren't willing to pay for it. ::The Star

Around Los Angeles, researchers have found that about two-thirds of new building in Southern California over the past decade was on land susceptible to wildfires, said Mike Davis, a historian at the University of California at Irvine and author of a social history of Los Angeles.

"It gives you some parameters for understanding the current situation," Davis said. "Another way to look at it is you simply drive out the San Gorgonio Pass, where the winds blow over 50 mph over a hundred days a year and you have new houses standing next to 50-year-old chaparral.

"You might as well be building next to leaking gasoline cans." ::Washington Post

John Gress - Reuters

Back in San Diego, former fire chief Jeff Bowman is nervous. According to the LA Times, Bowman works as a consultant to fire departments and municipalities. With 16 years as chief in Anaheim and four in San Diego before quitting over staffing and resource issues, he's got strong opinions on San Diego's long, proud culture of skimping on services to keep taxes low.

Although the city of San Diego has a fire department, the county doesn't, leaving many suburban and rural areas to rely on volunteer departments. The city has but one firefighting helicopter and just 975 firefighters for 330 square miles and 1.3 million residents.

Compare that, he says, with San Francisco, which has 1,600 firefighters for 60 square miles and 850,000 people.

"San Diego practices the biggest don't-tax-me campaign I've seen," says Bowman, a proud, lifelong Republican. Fine, he says, don't raise taxes. But reevaluate how money is spent and redistribute it to public safety. ::LA Times

Tags: California