Saturday, October 27, 2007

Fanning the Flames: Fire Welfare in San Diego

Although the recriminations have already started, there doesn’t seem to be much question that no amount of resources could have initially stopped the wind-whipped fires that are still ravaging a sizeable chunk of Southern California. With tinder dry conditions and howling Santa Ana winds, Mother Nature was going to have her way with the Southland whether folks liked it or not. People were going to be injured or killed, habitat was going to be destroyed, and structures were going to be lost. Period.

That having been said, there does seem to be legitimate questions about San Diego County’s fire preparedness and the adequacy of its fire fighting resources. And along with the answers to those questions comes annoyance, even anger. Annoyance that San Diego County is one of the few major metropolitan counties in the nation without its own fire department. Annoyance that the City of San Diego has just one firefighting helicopter and 975 firefighters to protect 330 square miles and 1.3 million residents. Annoyance that suburban and rural areas must rely upon volunteer fire departments because of the lack of a county fire department. Annoyance with lax or non-existent building regulations that allow homes to be situated in harms way. And finally, anger over the reason for all this silliness.

Its damn difficult to be annoyed and angry at a group of people who have just lost or been displaced from their homes, but San Diego County residents have managed to pull off this most unlikely of feats. That is because by and large, they appear to be responsible for the sorry state of San Diego County’s fire preparedness affairs. More accurately, their conservative political philosophy is responsible for San Diego County’s woeful lack of firefighting resources. San Diego County doesn’t have a fire department because its citizens don’t want a fire department. Well, it’s not necessarily that they don’t necessarily want one; they just don’t want to pay for one. Because paying for one would require some form of tax, and taxes, of course, are anathema to the cadre of small government, self-proclaimed “individualists” who predominate in San Diego County.

But if the recent conflagrations have shown us anything, it is that “rugged individualism” and unyielding faith in all things private only goes so far in San Diego County. Core conservative beliefs wilt under the intense heat of a raging wildfire. Government resources and assistance are no longer demonized. Accepting, nay expecting, government services funded by collected tax revenues is no longer the exclusive province of welfare queens driving Cadillacs and eating free cheese. Rather, it is the God given right of every upper middle class homeowner who built in fire prone areas (although it is not acknowledged as welfare and is not stigmatized as such).

Don’t get me wrong. Just like everyone else, the folks in San Diego County deserve fire fighting assistance from other sources (including federal, state and other county fire departments) when the winds begin to howl and the hills begins to burn. And in this particular case, the existence of a county fire department probably would not have made a significant difference in terms of acreage burned or structures ultimately lost. That does not mean it would have made no difference, however. And it really has a negative impact on San Diego as a fire welfare county. The utter refusal of San Diego County residents to fund their own fire department means that they must rely on other counties for fire suppression services. And ultimately, this means that the taxpayers in neighboring counties who have swallowed hard and made the financial sacrifice end up paying a disproportionate share of the price of fire protection for San Diego County when things get out of control. Certainly, given their political and philosophical proclivities, San Diego County residents would never stand for such a collectivist, cost-sharing arrangement. Too socialist for their tastes. But apparently, theirs is a complicated political philosophy under which it is better to receive than to give. Especially when you are the receiver.

DB ☼

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