Out of Control Policy Blog

Save us from fires and politics

Forget huge wildfires that envelope hundreds of thousands of acres, San Diego's fire chief says his department isn't even equipped to handle minor emergencies. Here's a list of some of the things that went wrong this time:

* During the fire, San Diego firefighters ran out of batteries for their portable radios because budget cuts had diminished their supplies. That left some unable to talk to their commanders or one another.

* The city's reserve fire engines, thrust into front-line service during major emergencies such as last week's fires, lack up-to-date radios and other equipment.

* The department's fleet of engines and trucks, regular or reserve, is among the most antiquated in the nation. One rig is 45 years old.

* The department has no money to send commanders out of state for free training by the federal government.

* San Diego, the seventh largest city in the country, ranks 40th in firefighters per capita, behind Mesa, Ariz.; Omaha, Neb.; and Memphis, Tenn. To meet the nationally accepted standard for fire staffing levels, San Diego would need an additional 800 firefighters.

Not enough money for fire engines and training? Hmmm. Seems like there's always plenty of money for generous pensions.

And before San Diego tries to beef up its per capita firefighter ranking, let's keep in mind that wildfires and structural fires are different threats that require different kinds of training. If officials are mixing municipal firefighters numbers with wildfire specialists, then they're missing the point.

There's a lot that's wrong with how we manage forests and fight wildfires. Unfortunately, there isn't much indication that the political solutions under consideration will do much to stave off future wildfires. (Then again, perhaps the plan is to burn down all of SoCal, thus depriving future fires of fuel.)

Reason's Matt Welch gives valuable insight into policies that subsidize building in risky areas. The problem isn't sprawl–as this columnist suggests–it's bad policy undermining the market's ability to saddle people with the amount of risk they choose to bear.

Ted Balaker is Producer


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