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EGCA contractors urge new thinking in fire control

As Firestorm 2007 swept across San Diego County and the entire Southern California region, Engineering & General Contractor Association (EGCA) members opened their hearts and doors to evacuees and fire victims, and now seek answers to prevention of future fire catastrophes.

In the early hours of the fires, earthmoving equipment owners made bulldozers and other large "yellow iron" available to public agencies to run firebreaks and back up publicly owned equipment engaged in firefighting efforts.

In Valley Center, an EGCA member's family ranch was spared, but seven of the 11 homes on the ranch burned to the ground, including homes belonging to three of his sisters and brothers-in-laws, his son, his niece and a nephew. EGCA broadcasted an urgent call for bunk beds and available mobile homes to house the family members.

As the fires were still being extinguished by brave fire crews, EGCA helped publicize the County Public Works Department's five erosion control material distribution centers throughout North, East and South County to distribute erosion control products and information on their placement, and offered help to anyone needing assistance with erosion control by trained, professional specialists.

Other EGCA leaders are now offering to work with county officials to explore more effective ways to prevent wholesale losses of thousands of acres in future events. Their argument: Current management policies clearly do not work, and truly effective environmental protection should not only protect individual endangered species, but the larger danger to all species by unchecked wind-whipped fire consuming everything in its path.

"It's not enough to wait for the Santa Ana (winds) to die down," suggests EGCA President Gene Brokaw, of Premier Pipeline. "We need more robust fire breaks and some bright new ideas to control and contain inevitable wild fires and prevent wholesale destruction of our county."

"Our heroes are local," added EGCA public works liaison Dan Fauchier, "firefighters, certainly, and law enforcement. But there are local heroes who labor in city and county offices who devised and programmed the Reverse 911 system, and who coordinated massive evacuations and relocations lasting for days, with heroic organization. Volunteers flooded evacuation centers, all heroic. Those displaced behaved in model ways. That's pretty heroic, given what has happened in other cities."

And now, the next mountainous task of rebuilding -- of streamlining local permits and making sure every ravaged homeowner complies with all the latest regulatory overkill -- the draconian rules recently enacted by the Regional Water Quality Control Board, which require that every drop of water be contained on each property, without running downhill.

Then comes the greatest challenge of all: What bright ideas will solve the problem of firestorms to begin with? We must not say there is no answer. There is an answer waiting to be found. While we have every right to be proud of the evacuation, we should be deeply disappointed that we are resigned to letting our county burn unchecked if the wind is high. We need a new plan that will prevent wildfires from sweeping across thousands of acres and into homes and businesses.

The recent fires consumed more than 60,000 acres of the same landscape burned in the 2003 Cedar Fire. In a recent New York Times article, UCLA ecology professor Philip W. Rundell suggests a "greater use of parks and other open recreational areas on the periphery of neighborhoods. Most fires in Southern California begin on roads, often when car fires ignite vegetation or when cigarettes are carelessly discarded. Low cinderblock walls built along fire-prone stretches of highways -- similar to those used along freeways as sound barriers in cities -- would greatly limit the spread of fire."

"OK, future local heroes, step forward," challenges EGCA Executive Director Debbie Day. "You may be bureaucrats, or computer nerds, or contractors on bulldozers, or ecology scientists with a plan for fire-arresting buffers, or school children thinking new thoughts. But there is -- there must be -- a way not just to evacuate in an orderly manner, but to prevent the need for mass evacuation at all."

For additional information, visit www.egca.org.

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