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Jul 12th
Home Columns San Diego Happenings A Fil-Am "First-Person" Article on the San Diego Wildfires (Part II)
A Fil-Am "First-Person" Article on the San Diego Wildfires (Part II) PDF Print E-mail
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Columns - San Diego Happenings
Tuesday, 06 November 2007 17:27

I looked forward to spending not only a quiet, restful Sunday at home but the succeeding days as well. It wasn’t because I wanted to, but it was something that I had to do to permit the three punctures in my left knee to properly heal. The Thursday before, an outpatient arthroscopic procedure was performed on my left knee by an orthopedist.

The news that dominated the week were about the La Jolla landslides on Mount Soledad; the drought crisis in Georgia; Louisiana’s election of its youngest governor, a 35-year old Indian-American, the son of immigrants from India; and for the first time in space flight history, women astronauts commanded both a space shuttle and the International Space Station. But on that Sunday, media attention first began to focus on Southern California wildfires in Los Angeles county

Earlier in the day most of the news coverage centered in and around Los Angeles county, specifically, the sweeping fire in the Malibu area. This fire raged furiously fanned by strong Santa Ana winds and began jumping around into surrounding suburbs. But the San Diego firestorms, by far, became more widespread and devastating that at one time covered the extreme north boundaries of the San Diego county line all the way south to the Mexican border close to Tecate,

There were stern warnings issued by the National Weather Service that because of the strong gusty winds and very low humidity, the weather would be conducive to explosive fire growth very similar to 2003, in strength and duration just prior to the devastating Cedar fires.

Since I was somewhat immobile that Sunday morning, I couldn’t make it to church so I just sat around reading the Sunday paper and watching network talk shows. Mid-morning when I happened to flip the channel to a local TV station, their programming was interrupted with a report that a man died fighting the fire that engulfed his house while his son who was with him was seriously burned. Four firefighters were also seriously injured trying to rescue them.

The fire started in the backcountry near the community of Potrero which is close to the Mexican border. That fire that swept through the area fanned by strong Santa Ana winds in a westerly direction became known as the Harris fire in the South county.

Almost at the same time, a brush fire started also in the backcountry forty miles to the north. It spread rapidly and at times the flames reached a height of 200 feet. This fire which became known as the Witch Creek fire alarmed authorities. It was near the same area where the historic Cedar fire of 2003 began to take its toll in lives and property.

By Sunday afternoon more brush fires started at different places. It became very evident by then that the available resources to fight the fires were just overwhelmed by the gusting winds that reached a speed of 65 mph frequently changing directions. The wildfires in combination with single digit humidity was just too much for the firefighters and residents. A state of emergency was declared and mandatory evacuation orders were issued by the County’s Office of Emergency Services for those communities in the path of the fire.

At the height of the firestorms headed in the westerly direction, more than 500,000 people from 346,000 homes in the county were under mandatory evacuation orders, almost 20% of the total county population. To reach that many households, the emergency services staff used the new Reverse 911 system in notifying specific geographical areas.

The days that followed became days of uncertainty for most San Diegans. Fifteen evacuation centers were set up initially but the Red Cross could only staff five of these, the largest of which was the Qualcomm Football Stadium. This facility housed more than 12,000 evacuees. Volunteers came from all over which at one point a news commentator noted that there were as many volunteers as evacuees. Evacuees were provided food, blankets, water, children’s toys, massages, and entertained by a live rock band. Material and food donations came in bulk and they were plentiful.

Qualcomm became a central point for out-of-town network anchors and commentators. Bryan Williams, Katie Couric, Charles Gibson and other personalities broadcast their network news from Qualcomm and outlying areas. Although San Diego’s Mayor Jerry Sanders and Chairman of the County Supervisors Ron Roberts regularly held press conferences an average of three times a day from the County Emergency Services office, California’s governor and President Bush initially gave their spiel at Qualcomm.

A CNN commentator had nothing but high praises for the way the Qualcomm stadium served the needs of the evacuees compared to the Katrina evacuees in New Orleans. He said the operation of Qualcomm was a stark contrast from the New Orleans Superdome. San Diego’s was more organized and orderly. A San Diego Union-Tribune commentary highlighted another contrast. There were two photos shown, one a Black woman Katrina evacuee leaning down washing her face from bottled water, and a photo of an Asian-American evacuee in his designer long sleeved shirt leaning back fiddling with his laptop computer. In the Union-Tribune’s Opinion page, I also read where Qualcomm evacuees were 66% well-off whites while the ones in the Superdome were 67% poor Blacks. I thought these comparisons were unfair.

The demographic figures quoted might have been correct but the circumstances that caused the evacuations to me, were not comparable. Just about everyone who came to Qualcomm drove there in their cars or SUVs whereas those who were sheltered in the Superdome came by other means because of the flooding in New Orleans. Qualcomm evacuees had with them their important personal belongings whereas most of the Katrina evacuees were rescued from their flooded neighborhoods with only the clothes on their backs. Additionally, local officials had the benefit of the lessons learned from Katrina and the 2003 Cedar fires. That was one big reason for the well thought-out organization in providing service to the thousands of evacuees.

During the succeeding four days of the firestorms several events that occurred are worth mentioning. All the school districts, universities, and colleges closed down. TV stations devoted their programming exclusively to cover the different raging fires and gave out a lot of good information on evacuation centers and road closures.

There was even one scene on Channel 8 TV that showed reporter Larry Himmel live in front of his burning house with tears visible in his eyes despite the mask he was wearing. Many businesses closed down for the week as well for many of their staff were evacuated.

San Diego county’s tribal casinos are noted for operating 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Except during these firestorms. The casinos that I knew shut their doors included, Harrah’s Rincon, Barona, Pauma, and Viejas. One, the Pala Casino, remained opened but the major roads to the place were intermittently inaccessible. Harrah’s accommodated many evacuees who had nowhere else to go to. Viejas’ large parking lot served as parking lot for trucks going east that were prohibited from using Interstate 8 because of the strong winds.

One thing that was distinctly noticeable was the chance for many politicians to rush to press conferences for a photo opportunity with President Bush and/or Governor Schwarzenneger. Among those who showed up included Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, State Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, and local members of Congress and State Asembly.

Fighting the San Diego wildfires showed how different agencies could work together cooperatively, a lesson learned from the Cedar Fire of 2003. The mandatory evacuation orders got out faster using the new Reverse 911. This might have been the reason there were less fatalities this year. Fifteen people lost their lives in 2003’s wildfires compared to eleven this year. Of the eleven, four were undocumented immigrants who were caught off-guard after crossing the border.

The Cedar Fire burned more than 280,000 acres and destroyed 2,820 buildings. This year, about 1,700 homes were lost but the land area damaged by the fires was up 22% to a total of more than 380,000 acres (592 square miles). That’s equal to more than 14% of San Diego county’s total land area! There are still patches of mopping up operation being performed by the firefighters in the North county. But from the above figures alone, there is no question that this will stand as the largest wildfire in the history of San Diego county. # # #

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Last Updated on Tuesday, 06 November 2007 17:31

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