San Diego Fire Department Engine 28. Courtesy of San Diego Fire-Rescue
San Diego Fire Department Engine 28. Courtesy of San Diego Fire-Rescue

Updated at 12 p.m., May 11, 2015

San Diego County officials have made great strides improving firefighting capability in unincorporated or “backcountry” areas, but more needs to be done, according a report released Monday by the San Diego County grand jury.

After major brushfires in 2003 and 2007, it was clear there was a need to reorganize fire protection services in rural areas, officials said.

County leaders, working with the Local Agency Formation Commission, in June 2008 created the San Diego County Fire Authority, which coordinates administration, communications, training and equipment for rural fire agencies and extends round-the-clock protection to those areas that previously had limited or part-time on-call fire protection.

In addition to establishing the County Fire Authority, the county has contracted with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection for additional services, upgraded rural firefighting facilities and equipment, and purchased additional aerial firefighting assets.

The grand jury commended county officials for significant firefighting improvements, but found that 13 of the 28 agencies providing fire protection to the backcountry have not entered into agreements with the Fire Authority.

Those 13 agencies represent about 500,000 acres, or 22 percent of the unincorporated area in San Diego County.

The grand jury also found that there are “islands” within the county that are not served by any fire agency.

Among its recommendations, the grand jury suggested that the county partner with the 13 fire agencies and find out how best to consolidate their organizations under the governance of the Fire Authority.

The remaining fire districts all have mutual aid deals with nearby agencies, but consolidation with the County Fire Authority would improve coordination of ground and aerial firefighting efforts, the report said.

Other advantages would include standardized training, receiving appropriate equipment regardless of fund-raising ability, and prepositioning of equipment and personnel to deal with potential emergencies, according to the grand jury.

The panel also recommended that the county offer specialized services to all of the fire authority’s partners, such as vehicle maintenance, purchasing and contracting, and business functions. Such enticements would encourage the remaining agencies to join the fold, the report says.

The county has until Aug. 10 to respond to the report.

—City News Service