The call came early in the morning and was totally unexpected. Emergency services personnel were preparing to evacuate neighborhoods on the eastern city limits right now. Earlier, I had barely noticed the faint scent of burning and smoke, which often accompanies a brush fire somewhere in our county. Having grown up here, it was not something totally out of the ordinary.
What was very much out of the ordinary was to learn that the evacuations being recommended for entire neighborhoods could very quickly become mandatory. A fast moving brush fire had swept its way westward and was threatening populated areas. This fire threat was only one of many now raging throughout the county, leading officials to fear the multiple fires would merge into one massive and unstoppable firestorm. The fires had started late the previous day and during the night. They were swept by fast moving dry winds and caught many by surprise. Some fatalities and injuries were known, along with the probability that many more could follow before it would be over.
I had been the Mayor of San Diego County’s second-largest city for barely 10 months. The person on the other end of the phone was the City Manager with a distinct sense of concern and urgency in his voice.
Shortly, the city would activate an Emergency Operations Center, calling in key personnel and officials, notifying the County Office of Emergency Services and preparing for whatever may lay ahead. I was later told in a briefing during the early morning hours, that if fire made it to certain portions of our community, it could burn all the way to the bay and there would be no stopping it. Welcome to the Mayor’s office.
This was not last week. It was October 2003 and what followed would be remembered until last week, as the worst regional disaster in history. Like last week, it would get worse before it got better. The air would become unsafe and smoke would make day turn to night. The San Diego County region would have its resources stretched to the limit. Following regional mutual aid protocols, many local firefighters were not in the city limits, but had joined strike teams in other jurisdictions with an ever more dire need, leaving fewer resources to re-assure a nervous public. Thousands were dislocated and sheltered, and still thousands of others came forward to help without ever being asked.
This could describe what happened on a greater scale last week, but that is where the similarities end. In the wake of the Cedar Fire of 2003, there were many appropriate criticisms concerning how that situation could have been better handled. City and County officials had not done a stellar job of collaborating and communicating. Equipment that could have helped different agencies communicate with one another was scarce. There were competing press conferences, with the county seemingly left in a secondary role when the Office of Emergency Services was in fact, the lead agency for regional disaster response. Federal assets such as military aircraft sat unused because of red tape. Many residents in the east county were not notified of the danger in time to save lives.
Last week it was a very different story, and the regional response to the fires of 2007 was a much-improved affair.
Too often, the public discussion of issues is sensationalized, facts either distorted or omitted, and people demonized. The public arena is often reduced to cheap sound-bites, a blood sport where criticisms and attacks are valued and heard above praise and the truth, which many times is seen as less interesting. As a citizen and a columnist, I will not hesitate to point out where our officials can and must do better, or to defend principle. But I will also not be afraid to praise and extend credit where credit is due. It is to that end that I take this week’s column as an opportunity to do just that.
While there will be lessons learned from the fires of 2007 and should be, our community and our officials performed admirably. It takes a tragedy sometimes to come back down to earth and recognize the many blessings we enjoy and not just the burdens. As painful as tragedy can be, there are always I believe, the quiet small miracles present in people and their deeds. Of course, our first-responders are the everyday un-sung heroes doing amazing things as a matter of routine. They certainly did not let us down last week.
Having witnessed first hand the challenges faced in such a disaster, I was proud and pleased to see officials working together, calmly and clearly, to keep the public informed and to meet the needs of the situation. My hat is off to former colleagues like Chairman Ron Roberts, Mayor Jerry Sanders, and to my successor in Chula Vista, Mayor Cheryl Cox who each performed admirably.
Padilla served as Chula Vista Mayor from 2002-06 and on the California Coastal Commission from 2005-07. He is President/CEO of Aquarius Group, Inc. and can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org