As the fall season approaches, bringing Santa Ana winds as well as drier conditions, firefighting agencies are game-planning how to defend the vast, vulnerable San Diego region from catastrophic firestorms.
They won't have the money in their arsenals they did while facing the widespread disasters of 2003 and 2007.
Given an economy that's cratered the budgets of government at all levels, the fire agencies are trying to provide as much service as they did before the global money meltdown -- with a whole lot less. The engine company "brownouts" and staffing cuts that have raised so much public outrage go far beyond San Diego's city limits.
"San Miguel [Fire Protection District], the one that I serve mostly, we had to close an engine company," said Augie Ghio, president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs Association. "That's happening all around -- not just in San Diego County, but the country."
Ghio's remarks came at a Tuesday breakfast forum sponsored by the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, during which a long and troubling list of fire-related challenges facing the region were spelled out.
"Are we as best prepared as we can be? Absolutely not!" said County Supervisor Dianne Jacob. "But I can tell you, from what I know, that money isn't the only answer. Just look at Los Angeles County: They spend a lot more money than we do, and yet, they still have these major fires."
Jacob, Ghio and other experts on the forum panel cited major improvements in air attack resources, communication, structure protection and preventive measures since the Santa Ana-driven firestorms of 2003 and 2007.
But in an era of budget cuts, they said the safety net is fraying.
"You have the level of fire services you can afford -- which is not always what you desire," said Stewart Gary, a retired fire chief whose consulting firm, Citygate Associates, has assessed fire resources deployment for the county and is now studying those issues for the city of San Diego.
"This is America," Gary added. "We let local government, for the most part, determine local service issues."
Panelists agreed that priorities for investing scarce tax dollars must be balanced and set out clearly by the voters.
"At the end of the day, fire chiefs like me, our job is to manage the resource that we are given," said Javier Mainar, chief of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Dept., which has browned out eight of its 47 engine companies on a daily basis since February, to save $11.5 million annually.
"We need to get to that point where we've educated the community enough to know what it is you're buying," Mainar said. "And what you do, maybe, to reduce costs -- and at what expense to public safety."
In the city of San Diego, the next big opportunity for the public to weigh in on spending priorities is Nov. 2, when residents will be in on Proposition D, the proposed half-cent sales tax hike -- backed by Mayor Jerry Sanders and six of eight City Council members -- that can only be triggered by the completion of 10 fiscal reform measures.