2007 San Diego fires still caught us ill-prepared

Negative Pulitzer Prize?

— Some comparisons are invidious. Others are ridiculous. The attempts to compare politicians' responses to the 2007 San Diego fires with the pols' performance during Hurricane Katrina two years ago are preposterous. Fox TV blusterer Bill O'Reilly brayed that the California fires were "the opposite of Katrina." O'Reilly's kindred spirit, Geraldo Rivera, bellowed that the handling of the 2007 fires represented "the anti-Katrina." A Union-Tribune writer penned a silly piece, " 'Tale of Two Cities': San Diego Proved to Be No New Orleans." By contrast with New Orleans, San Diego's reaction was "almost a model of efficient, effective response."

Balderdash. There were 8 deaths in the 2007 fires here and 1800 from Katrina, 1200 of which were in New Orleans. There was $1 billion in damage from the local 2007 fires. Estimates for total Katrina damage range from $80 billion to $200 billion; New Orleans was the worst hit. At one point, New Orleans was 80 percent flooded. San Diego lost 1400 homes. New Orleans lost 50,000, and probably more. Some analysts believe the grossly slanted journalism here was an attempt to contrast white California Republicans with black Louisiana Democrats.

Admittedly, Louisiana government may be the nation's most corrupt and inept, but comparing two disasters of such differing kind and magnitude is outrageous. In San Diego, the local press ignored so many blunders by politicians that "the invisible spirit of Karl Rove seemed to be turning it into a campaign rally," says Mike Davis, a San Diegan who teaches environmental history at the University of California, Irvine. "If you were going to give a negative Pulitzer prize, it would be won hands down by the Union-Tribune."

In truth, politicians at every level learned little from the 2002 and 2003 San Diego fires. This year there weren't enough fire stations, fire trucks, or firefighters for Rancho Bernardo, where more than 300 homes were destroyed, largely without residents receiving reverse 911 calls. Indeed, more stations and firefighters are needed throughout the region. There were one-tenth the number of employees removing brush as recommended by the former fire chief, who resigned in frustration. The governor vetoed four bills that would have boosted San Diego's firefighting capability. Coordination on getting military firefighting planes in the air was lacking in 2007, just as in 2003. The mayor claimed in June of this year that the situation was under control, even though some were warning that this could be the worst fire year in a century.

"After the 2003 Cedar Fire, there were better communications, better software, better interagency coordination -- everything that didn't cost money," says Steve Erie, professor of political science at the University of California, San Diego. "We still don't have a county fire department. Voluntary departments use bake sales to finance themselves. The damage could have been minimized if there had been adequate fire departments."

Paul Harris, a library supervisor at the University of California, San Diego, was in New Orleans through Katrina, inside the Superdome for days. "Katrina is 150 times worse than here -- 100 times the number killed, more than 100 times the houses destroyed," he says, underestimating the difference. The 2007 fires were an opportunity for local pols "to pat each other on the back, get great media coverage." But that's almost all they learned from 2003: how to control the propaganda reins.

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