Insurer alleges agencies bungled wildfire control
By Tony Perry
Los Angeles Times
Sunday, July 25, 2004 - SAN DIEGO -- Bungling by fire and police agencies here allowed last October's Cedar fire to spread "into a wildfire of epic proportion," one of California's largest insurance companies has charged in a claim filed against three public agencies.
Allstate Corp., which expects to pay out $290 million to $330 million to policyholders as a result of last fall's fires, is demanding that the city and county of San Diego as well as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection help it cover the costs because it says they did an incompetent job of fighting the most costly of the blazes, the Cedar fire.
The agencies have rejected the claim, which accuses emergency officials of "gross malfeasance" in allowing the fires to blacken 300,000 acres across San Diego County's backcountry and destroy 2,300 homes.
Officials said a state law provides governments virtually blanket immunity to lawsuits arising from firefighting efforts.
Candysse Miller, executive director of the Insurance Information Network of California, a trade group for insurance companies, said San Diego is the only city or county to face such a claim and Allstate is the only company to file such a claim.
The October wildfires struck parts of San Bernardino, Riverside, Los Angeles and Ventura counties.
Even if Allstate does not pursue its claim in court, she added, the insurance giant is "sending a message" that could result in future lawsuits if San Diego officials fail to bolster their fire protection efforts.
Allstate spokesman Bill Mellander said no decision had been made by the company on whether to file a lawsuit. The claim filed this week was the first step required before a lawsuit can be filed.
"In the face of possible negligence that may have caused damage to our policyholders, we are serving notice that gives us the time and ability to weigh all our possible options," Mellander said.
The government response in the early hours of the Cedar fire has been the source of debate. Fire officials have said that they were hampered by poor communications and a lack of resources and that some of their early tactical decisions did little to slow the fire's spread.
Critics say San Diego has ignored numerous warnings over the last 20 years that its fire agencies were woefully understaffed and could not respond effectively to a major brush fire.
Although the problems stated in Allstate's claim -- lack of helicopters and aerial tankers, radio foul-ups, and poor coordination -- have been documented by the agencies in their "after-action" reports, the insurance company's language is some of the toughest that has been applied to the firefighting effort.
Fire officials, in the early stages of the fire, showed "a complete disregard" for panicky calls from homeowners, resulting in a "lack of coordination by governmental officials responsible for organizing and dispatching appropriate firefighting efforts," the insurance company charged.
In December a report by the San Diego Fire Department said the department was hampered by a lack of manpower, equipment and training and had problems with communication and coordination in fighting the Cedar fire, which destroyed homes in two of the city's pricier neighborhoods, Tierrasanta and Scripps Ranch.
In March a task force assembled by the forestry department reached a similar conclusion about all the agencies that fought the fires in the county.
San Diego County is the only large county in the state without a countywide fire department. And the city of San Diego has one of the lowest number of firefighters of any large city in the nation.
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08-04-2004, 03:50 PM #1
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Insurer alleges agencies bungled wildfire control
08-05-2004, 07:51 AM #2
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With apologies to NJFFSA16, who normally follows the news better than most of us, this might be a good place to include the following editorial that appeared in a San Diego paper recently:
The Cedar fire: a question of blame?
By Richard W. Halsey, July 22, 2004, San Diego Union-Tribune, Editorial
section, page B7
On your next excursion to Julian, stop at the Inaja Memorial just up the
hill from Santa Ysabel. Take a moment and read the bronze plaque listing
the 11 firefighters who were killed while battling the Inaja fire on Nov.
25, 1956. The incident report published after the disaster recommended
"that a better knowledge of fire behavior must be developed as an essential
means of preventing future fire tragedies."
The Cedar fire of October 2003 started approximately five miles southwest
of where the Inaja fatalities occurred, in the same type of vegetation and
rugged terrain. Consequently, San Diego-area fire commanders knew the risks
involved when they arrived on scene with approximately 350 fire control
personnel within an hour of the Cedar fire being reported: impenetrable,
12-foot-high chaparral, steep canyon walls and approaching Santa Ana wind
conditions. Not a lot could be done without risking the lives of hundreds
of firefighters. Then the winds picked up, blasting an explosive inferno
across 18 miles by early the next morning. It was an unstoppable force.
Nine months later, after listening to grandstanding politicians,
ill-informed radio commentators, and now attorneys of the Allstate
Insurance Company who are considering suing local firefighting agencies for
not "dispatching appropriate firefighting efforts at the incipient stage"
of the Cedar fire, one would think the entire disaster was caused by the
California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. According to one of
Allstate's lawyers out of Chicago, "Little or nothing was done in the
process when this fire was very, very approachable." Really? One wonders if
this attorney has ever confronted 100-foot flames screaming down on him
during a California brush fire.
The Cedar fire was reported at 5:36 p.m., Oct. 25. Claims of earlier calls
have never been corroborated. Being able to assemble 350 fire control
personnel into the backcountry within an hour of the report is hardly an
The debate over calling back the Sheriff's Department helicopter with its
thimble-full bucket of water demonstrates more about political hype than
understanding how fires are fought. No fire in North America has ever been
put out by aircraft alone. To be effective, aerial water drops need ground
personnel to complete the work.
In the case of the Cedar fire, ground crews could not safely reach the fire
site. Based on the detailed computer modeling performed by the U.S. Forest
Service, assuming 100 percent accuracy of helicopter water drops, aerial
support would only have been effective in knocking down a third of the
Cedar fire at best.
Those criticizing the decision to call back the sheriff's helicopter due to
safety regulations really have no idea what they are talking about. Flying
at dusk with a 1,000-pound bag of water dangling 15 to 25 feet below an
aircraft, with electrical lines strung across the landscape, uncertain wind
conditions and a next-to-zero chance of the mission producing desired
results are not the variables conducive to acceptable risk.
So is there anyone we can blame for the Cedar fire? Firefighting agencies
are easy targets because they have been charged with the task of protecting
us, but at what cost? A resident from the Mussey Grade community, north of
Poway, shouted out during a Ramona Water Board meeting that there should
have been more firefighter fatalities if they had been doing their job
right. Some folks in the Crest area claimed the fire department let their
Let's make something perfectly clear. We live in a fire-prone environment.
Nothing we can do will change that. Fire officials constantly warn us about
the risks, yet we typically choose to ignore them.
One reason San Diego Fire Chief Earl Roberts resigned in 1984 was due to
his frustration over the community's lack of concern of the severe fire
danger present in the city. It does not take much imagination to see what
could happen to Clairemont Mesa under conditions similar to the 1991
Oakland Hills fire. During a few hours, 2,900 homes were lost, one igniting
every 11 seconds. During that type of event, pushed forward by Santa Ana
winds, it won't matter how many helicopters San Diego County has on line.
If there is any blame for the lives and homes lost during the Cedar fire,
it initially falls on the developers who built communities in high
fire-risk areas and those government leaders who permitted it. But blaming
doesn't get us anywhere in terms of trying to solve the fire danger we are
The ultimate responsibility for fire safety lands squarely with individual
homeowners. It is their duty to do everything they can to retrofit existing
structures with low fire-risk features: boxed eaves, double-glazed windows,
ember-resistant attic vents, sealed gaps between roof tiles and deck, and
no exposed wood surfaces, including fences and roofing.
In areas with extreme fire danger, rooftop misters or sprinklers supplied
by an independent, on-site water source will also help. And most
importantly, regularly maintained defensible space around the home to
prevent ignition by direct heat.
The structure of defensible space, however, is critical. Simply "clearing"
the land as San Diego County has recommended may create a worse situation
by encouraging the growth of weedy annuals, considered flashy fuels due to
their ease of ignition. It is best to reduce fuels in the 30-to 100-feet
zone (depending on the situation) away from the home by heavy trimming
rather than disturbing soil with aggressive clearance. And keep the pine
and Eucalyptus trees far from any structure; they can be explosive. Don't
put the lives of firefighters at risk trying to defend the indefensible.
We've learned a lot since the Inaja fire of 1956. Fires, when they come,
are often multiple events taxing fire management resources. Chances are,
firefighters are not going to be able to get to your home in time during a
large event. Make it safe. Make it defensible. Let the fire burn around
you. It's your responsibility.
Halsey is a field biologist who has studied chaparral for more than 20
08-05-2004, 09:02 AM #3
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- May 2004
If this writer's opinion were relevant,
it would be admissible in evidence to
defend an insurer's case.
But, as it is opinion of a non-expert, and
not fact, then stictly speaking, it's imadmissible.
One's thing's sure, the editor won't be a witness
for the defence and therefore cannot be cross-examined.
That fact alone tends to convince me it counts for
nothing and should be inadmissible.
If it is amissible, then the judge can place
what weight he wants on it.
In a recent CSI episode crime scene investigator, Gil
Grissom, discussed with a rural Nevada sheriff his
philosophy of investigation. Grissom said he preferred
questions to answers. In Grissom's world, answers and
opinions are certainly never taken as fact.
When 24 lives and 3900 homes are lost, there are (or
should be) a whole lot of questions asked including this one:
How come, on the world's worst wildfires, the
US Forest Service refuses to use the world's most
powerful firefighting aircraft, pictured here in this
NATO photo?: http://www.nato.int/pictures/2002/020925b/b020925g.jpg
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