A combination of three major factors impact wildfires in Southern California: changes in our weather pattern from cool on-shore marine flow to off-shore hot dry desert air, low humidity with soaring temperatures and fuel in the form of trees and shrubbery. In weatherman terms: red-flag fire conditions. We all know the significance that the Santa Ana winds have had in the destruction of more than 2,000 homes and over half-a-million acres. But the pivotal factor in reducing loss of life and property from the wildfires of 2007 was excellent crisis management by diverse sectors of San Diego County.
While the fires in San Diego topped all the statistics in intensity and size, fewer lives were lost and homes destroyed than our most recent fire, the 2003 Cedar fire. This can only be attributed to excellent pre-planning, early action, and the calm response of San Diegans who were both victims and volunteers.
Most San Diegans learned of the fires and the potential impact they would have from Mayor Jerry Sanders on Sunday afternoon, October 21. This is because both the Harris fire, south of San Diego, and the Witch fire, to the north, had the city in a potential pincher. County Supervisor Ron Roberts and Mayor Sanders, with his background in law enforcement and emergency response, had an early grasp on the situation and kept people alerted to possible evacuations and affected areas.
Similarly, the County Board of Supervisors responded to those areas of the county outside of the mayor’s jurisdiction. No matter where in the county or the city fires were burning, a seamless response occurred. The efforts to pre-plan and change processes in the face of such a disaster certainly paid off.
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived quickly in San Diego Sunday night to survey the response operations and to engage state agencies. He promptly declared a State of Emergency to begin providing statewide resources that night. During one of the earliest press conferences, he repeatedly assured city and county leaders of his support and assistance. This decisiveness allowed mayors, supervisors and managers to confidently respond and commit resources quickly.
Likewise, President Bush responded to the governor’s request to declare a State of Emergency on Tuesday, the 23rd. And the next day, the president declared Southern California a major disaster area and personally visited San Diego on October 25 to get a first-hand assessment.
The leadership and positive posture of the governor, mayor and county supervisors spread to mayors in all municipalities, nonprofit organizations, corporations, and the community at large. Evacuation orders were sent early and often through the reverse 911 system. The media was a tremendous source of direction and information that literally saved lives by helping people avoid danger and receive needed help.
Elected officials from the state sought to help by compiling a list of state resources and insurance information that was disseminated to evacuation centers across the county. Each Assembly member and senator in San Diego County visited the evacuation centers in their district to provide information and determine how challenges could be overcome.
I visited the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which had turned into a mini-city holding 2,400 people and families, and 1,850 horses and other animals. The generosity of the people of San Diego was immediately apparent as the Fairgrounds received an overwhelming amount of donations and people willing to help.
As I met with victims and those who dropped whatever they were doing to help them, it was clear that San Diego is full of caring people. Emergency organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army joined with community groups, churches and citizens to help others. Even those who lost everything turned around to help a neighbor. San Diego came together in a way that cannot be orchestrated and is a testimony to citizens exercising individual responsibility and living up to San Diego’s reputation as America’s Finest City.
Of course, no amount of words can do justice to the courageous and tireless service of our firefighters, law enforcement and emergency personnel. These men and women ran towards the danger, through the stifling heat and wind, to face down an out of control fire for hours on end with little sleep or food. While my mind remains filled with images of the fire’s destruction and the faces of those who lost much, my heart is grateful and full of appreciation to those who supported the fire rescue and relief efforts through their commitment, hard work, and generosity.