Officials: A Year After Fires, San Diego County Is More Prepared

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- Nearly one year after a deadly firestorm devastated much of the region, San Diego County is better equipped and prepared today, but fire officials warn that the county must do more to unify its firefighting efforts.

``Fire protection in San Diego County is like a large jigsaw puzzle,'' said Carlsbad Fire Chief Kevin Crawford, president of the San Diego County Fire Chiefs' Association.

Crawford said the county has failed to manage the patchwork of fire districts in the growing unincorporated areas, where most of the 17 fatalities occurred in last October's Cedar and Paradise fires. As a result, the rural backcountry lacks sufficient resources and the county does not have a cohesive radio communications system.

Much of the county feels a ``lack of support'' a sense of ``being isolated unto themselves,'' Crawford said.

Still, fire officials told a hearing that improvements have been made, including evacuation plans for rural and semi-rural communities; new engines and additional firecrews; better coordination among agencies; speedier removal of dead and dying trees, and expanded use of firefighting aircraft. A new helicopter crew has been added to the San Diego region.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has improved its system for predicting fire weather and strengthened its plans to respond to extreme weather, such as moving equipment and boosting staffing, said the CDF's Tim Turner.

The rules for firefighting aircraft also have been changed to give pilots and support squads greater flexibility in deciding whether to take off in the final moments of daylight. State and federal fire officials were heavily criticized last year for following rules barring takeoffs 30 minutes before sunset in the early hours of the Cedar fire.

The state also is working with the Navy and Marines to begin sharing use of military aircraft, another matter that fueled criticism last year.

Extremely dry conditions persist in the county. On Monday, the U.S. Forest Service closed large portions of two Southern California forests to recreational use. There is a chance the entire Cleveland National Forest east of San Diego could be closed in the next month, said Rich Hawkins, the forest's chief firefighter.

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors invited comments on lessons learned from last year's fires, which burned more than 2,000 homes.