During the 2003 Cedar fire there was a sense of panic and chaos. This week with the Witch Creek and Harris fires there was quick and controlled response to the fires. Homeowners were notified. Evacuations were timely and orderly. Emergency shelters were established and all the communities throughout San Diego jumped in together to volunteer, donate, and offer support in any way possible. The sense of panic we felt in ’03 was not visible and was supplanted by a community coming together. All San Diegans should feel proud for the way they have responded to this emergency.
Some lessons from the ’03 Cedar fire had been learned. There has been a greater coordination between agencies. There is more air support. There has been better communication. There has been military support and the federal government responded in a timely fashion, probably a lesson learned from Hurricane Katrina.
Another lesson learned from the ’03 fires was that personal precautions were taken by homeowners to fire proof their homes by clearing brush from their property creating a fire line and roofing their homes with fire retardant materials. These improvements saved many homes.
While some lessons had been learned it quickly became obvious that San Diego was still woefully under prepared for this disaster.
For the Hispanic and Mexican communities of the region, in particular the monolingual Spanish language community, once again like in ’03, there was no information coming out during the first few days of the emergency in Spanish. Up-to-date information was being provided by the English language television and radio stations from the outset, yet they provided no information in Spanish during the most crucial time the first few days of the disaster. The daily newspapers stuck to their English only news.
The Spanish language media did little better. Univision provided little information in the beginning possibly due to the fact that they do not have a large local staff. Nor did any of the local radio stations provided the type of comprehensive reporting needed, not until days later. It was until several days later that the English language television stations started scrolling information at the bottom of screen in Spanish.
It was also painfully obvious that there simply is not enough fire personal. Only one fire station has been built in San Diego since the Cedar fire in ’03. This is not to say that even with more men that they could have stemmed the fire with the Santa Ana winds blowing, but perhaps they could have saved a few more homes and they may have had some reserves available for the cities in case of a downtown fire emergency.
Despite planning to provide emergency shelters, by Monday the Red Cross only had 5 shelters open, with local governments and military providing 10 more shelters. And there were not enough supplies to deal with the some 230,000 evacuees. This is where the community came together and really responded to the need. Schools, community centers, health centers opened their doors and created shelters. Resident pulled together and donated what they could. And local business kicked in with supplies and monetary contributions. Even space was found for animals of all types.
While there was more air support it still was not enough and some did not arrive until the middle of the week. Better coordination and air support more readily available would have gone a long way in fighting this fire.
With the winds dying down and seemingly with the fire subsiding, with more and more people returning to their homes, stories of heroism will be forth coming as will stories of failures. As with the Cedar fire in ’03 let us hope that we can take these lessons and once again learn from them as we prepare to better handle these types of disasters in the future.