ALL ABOARD THE GRAVY TRAIN Money will likely flow to firefighters, but that's not what's nee

Now that San Diego County is no longer a flaming hellhole, the scavengers are sifting through the debris looking for a few bucks. Top on the list are the firefighters-the heroes, the brave lads, the sweaty, grimy folks who fought for lives and homes.

Actually, the guys and gals on the frontlines would be a happy with a cold glass of Gatorade, at this point. But their bosses see a first-class opportunity to jack the public for more money, now that East County looks like a spent barbecue pit.

This is what is known as "good timing." So you can't blame the leaders of the local fire departments for getting out their blankets and fanning the flames a bit, trying to stir up a few more dollars for the corps.

And, sure enough, several beady-eyed politicians, sensing a press conference in the area, are stepping forward to back the boys and girls in yellow. After all, who is going to diss firefighters right after the holocaust? In the world of politics, where a successful leader won't buy toilet paper without convening a focus group, that would be known as "unwise."

For many years the fire dudes, a powerful lobbying force in San Diego, have been saying they need more of everything. More trucks. More fire stations. More planes. More manpower. The firefighters are always begging for more, and over and over again the funding has been voted down, usually for good reason.

The biggest reason is that while big shiny fire engines are really cool, most people who didn't vote for Arnold recognize that it isn't really necessary to fund a massive firefighting bureaucracy, complete with an armada of air and land attack vehicles and a regional task force to meet once a week and sip hot coco and chomp those tasty cookies with chocolate in the middle.

Firefighting is essentially a part-time gig these days. Thanks to fire codes, dangerous structure fires are fairly rare. Each time one of those old deathtrap buildings gets torn down and is replaced by a well-inspected pseudo-Mediterranean stucco box, the more time firefighters have to shine the wheels of the truck.

Forest fires are a different beast-scary and uncontrollable. Firefighters will be the first to admit that when there is a hot desert wind blowing through a valley of dry pine needles, there's only so much you can do to rope the monster.

The Cedar fire, dubbed Firestorm 2003 by the clever folks at KGTV, was the worst fire disaster in 100 years, a freak of nature, the creation of evil timing and horrendous luck. If similar fires of Biblical proportions weren't burning all over the state and there hadn't been months of drought, it might have been a different story on the San Diego fire lines.

According to news reports, planes and helicopters were standing at the ready to battle the early stage of the local demon blaze, but bureaucrats kept them on the ground. County supervisor Bill Horn told a reporter spotty cell phone coverage and a lack of local maps for out-of-town firefighters hurt the firefighting efforts.

It'll take more than increased funding to solve those kinds of problems.

Creating huge armies of firefighters with the latest high-tech devices, poised and ready, sitting around firehouses waiting for Firestorm 2103 is similar to building an ark in Mission Valley awaiting the big flood. It's not really necessary, especially considering that they could build fire bunkers throughout the forest manned by cutthroat firefighting commandos armed with the latest in fire retardant technology, and it would still only be marginally effective against a drunk hunter with a hankering for a cigar.

Fighting huge forest fires doesn't require a million finely trained firefighting superheroes, experts in the latest fire control studies-it takes a million lunkheads willing to don yellow jackets and clear brush in a smoky death zone. In times of Armageddon, all the resources of the city, county and state, from the Marines to those well-armed Harbor Patrol cops who act snooty to boaters, should be called up and thrown onto the frontlines.

As Smokey the Bear points out, there are many ways to fight forest fires. One way would be to force homeowners to clear out dead brush from their backyards. Our elected wunderkind might also consider imposing the death penalty on any camper caught roasting weenies over an open flame during a Santa Ana wind.

Another approach would be to limit the numbers of homes built in fire zones, which would dramatically decrease the number of homes that burn down. If firefighters didn't have to fight for Joe and Martha's Cuyamaca honeymoon retreat, they'd have more bodies to battle for homes in Scripps Ranch-not to mention the environmental benefits of keeping hot tubs out of the wilderness.

The firefighters might even be able to dive into their own bureaucracy to save a few bucks. Solana Beach and Del Mar recently came up with the novel idea of sharing a fire chief, which means instead of two guys going to Rotary Club meetings there is only one, without a discernable drop in fire safety.

Selling that type of radical thinking will be tough, with the local TV news stations broadcasting daily tales of heroism and horror. Our weasly, glad-handing politicians will be eager to write the fire gurus a blank check, just to show they care.

They'll need to understand that a vote against throwing money at fire departments is akin to a vote on the war in Iraq-it's possible to support the troops and still think it's a dumb-ass idea.

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