Tuesday, October 16 , 2018, 9:00 pm | Fair 59º

Harris Sherline

Harris Sherline: Fire Response Criticism Not Always Informed Opinion

Even best intentions can be misguided, so be sure to get the facts straight before calling out professionals who fight fires

Noozhawk and newspapers have been full of letters and commentaries about the Jesusita Fire. Lots of well-deserved praise and appreciation for the firefighters, the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Department and Santa Barbara police, all of whom did an outstanding job of protecting the lives and property of South Coast residents.

Harris Sherline
Harris Sherline

However, along with the expressions of gratitude have come the usual litanies of criticism and suggestions, most of which probably have little practical value. Some of them also struck me as being a bit harsh, as well-intentioned as they may have been.

As for criticism, my personal pet peeve is not about the many dedicated people who deliberately expose themselves to danger to protect others. It’s about the penchant of some elected officials, who look for every opportunity to get into the limelight by working their way to the podium during news conferences, seemingly for no other reason than to be noticed. This is extremely annoying to me.

Following are just some of the commentary headlines that have been published about the fire:

» “Why no air attack when fire started?”

» “Fire prevention must be a priority.”

» “Better method for doing water drops.”

» “Snuff unnatural ignition sources.”

» “Deploy Guard to help battle blaze.”

» “‘Let it burn’ policy a disaster waiting to happen.”

Since none of the commentaries or letters provided any information about the backgrounds of the various writers, obviously it’s not possible to properly evaluate their criticisms and/or suggestions. However, my own experience does offer some frame of reference. Over the years, as is probably the case with most people, I’ve had a tendency to form opinions or reach conclusions without the requisite background or research on which to base my thinking.

For example, when my wife and I moved to the Santa Ynez Valley in 1984, early on I came to the conclusion that the local hospital was not being properly operated, as a business, that is, and that many of its problems could be resolved with proper management. After many years as a CPA and entrepreneur, I concluded, wrongly I might add, that the organization just was not being well run. However, I failed to take into account the fact that I knew very little about the health-care industry in general and even less about hospitals in particular.

After living in the Valley for about two years, I became directly involved with the hospital as a volunteer, and a few years later found myself as its CEO. My education about hospitals really began at that point. It was a crash course, and I soon learned there were good reasons for most of the management decisions I had previously criticized.

My sense is that the same sort of caveat can be applied to many, perhaps most, of the commentaries about the handling of the Jesusita Fire or other fires in Santa Barbara County. Many of the suggestions may make sense, but they may not be doable for various reasons, such as cost, availability or lack of resources, technical feasibility, etc.

A good example is the Zaca Fire, which started on July 4, 2007. It began 15 miles northeast of Buellton and was not controlled until the end of October of that year, after burning more than 240,000 acres. The fire was started by sparks from a grinding machine that was being used to repair a water pipe on private property that was well out of the populated area. Given that it started on a ranch that was at least 15 miles from the nearest fire station and was difficult to reach, it’s hard to see how it could have been prevented from spreading, even if the various suggestions that have been made as a result of the Jesusita Fire might have been adopted at the time.

I am privileged to have a good friend who is a retired Santa Barbara County fire captain, and through the course of the recurring fires that are so common here, he has explained a great deal to me about professional firefighting, along with giving me some understanding of the many scientific and technical advances that have been made in both building construction and firefighting over the years.

As a result, although I’m certainly no expert, my conclusion is that most of us have a tendency to oversimplify and to criticize, at least until we learn enough to have an informed opinion about the handling of many situations.

Perhaps we should all wait for more information before offering criticisms or suggestions.

— Harris R. Sherline is a retired CPA and former chairman and CEO of Santa Ynez Valley Hospital who has lived in Santa Barbara County for more than 30 years. He stays active writing opinion columns and his blog, Opinionfest.com.

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