Higher taxes are not the answer to fight brush fires in San Diego County – we need to spend more of our existing funds protecting the public.

But just spending more money on public safety is not the only answer. Far from it.

Indeed, calls for spending hundreds of millions of dollars annually to expand the county professional firefighting forces to battle the next major wind-whipped brush fire – an event that happens once every 3 to 8 years – is madness. As it now stands, professional firefighters spend only 3-4% of their average shift actually fighting fires.

What will the hundreds of additional firefighters be doing 24/7, 365 days a year between those rare, huge brush fires? Besides getting paid, that is.

Moreover, another 500-800 professional firefighters would not have stopped the Santa Ana wind-driven fires – no way. With TEN times as many fire fighters brought in, we were not able to stop such fires during the full fury of the winds.

To modify a trendy cliché, it’s time to think outside the fire station.

The important thing to understand is that few homes immediately burn down when a brush fire roars by. Indeed, most San Diego homes burned not from roaring fires but from the EMBERS from fires – fires sometimes a mile away. A glowing ember settles in a bush beside an evacuated home, the bush slowly catches fire, and eventually the flames spread to the house. Wooden roofs used to be a prime ignition point, but few such flammable structures remain.

Aside from better and more prompt use of air support, there are some ultra-low cost options to consider in dealing with these ember fires:

1. San Diego County is rather unique in that it has THOUSANDS of trained government firefighters ready and eager to fight the blazes on short notice – but they are never used. Every Navy sailor – officer and enlisted – has received at least rudimentary firefighting training. Moreover, the ships and shore stations have TONS of firefighting equipment – firefighting masks, clothing gear, portable pumps, and enough fire hose to reach to Kansas.

In addition, although Marines are not trained firefighters, they are more fit – ideal for defending structures from ember fires using garden hoses, shovels, buckets of water and wet blankets.

Would the military provide ground firefighting assistance if asked? In a heartbeat! The brass would love the positive publicity, and the sailors and marines would relish the opportunity to fight fires.

2. We have volunteer city and county reserve police officers. Why not volunteer reserve firefighters as well? This option is common around the world.

For a relatively small cost of equipment and basic firefighter training, we could have thousands of motivated citizens fighting a fire – especially the ember fires. Some could even be trained to man small, simple fire trucks.

Outlandish? Not hardly. Three out of four trained firefighters in America are volunteers.
People LOVE to be firefighters.

3. End mandatory evacuations – especially in suburban areas. It’s un-American to order people to abandon their homes when clearly firefighters cannot defend most abandoned abodes from fires. Instead, make timely evacuations voluntary, leaving to the individual the final decision to stay or go.

Government should be providing advice, training and perhaps even hoses for willing homeowners who want to stay and fight the fires. Over and over, suburban residents who defied evacuation orders in the 2003 and 2007 fires – remaining behind to fight the threat – were able to save their homes. Plus, they often saved nearby homes with simple firefighting tools and garden hoses. And not a single such suburban firefighting law breaker died.

Higher taxes are not needed. New ideas offer better solutions.