As we approach the anniversary of the massive October 2007 wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced thousands of San Diegans- I think of Hawaii.
That’s because, on the Sunday the massive wildfires started in San Diego- just a few miles east of the 76th Assembly district I represented- I was flying westward over the Pacific, looking forward to a relaxing week on Maui. It had been windy, dry, and hot in San Diego as the flight departed, so I welcomed the relatively mild tropical island weather and rented a convertible for the drive to town.
Unfortunately, the fires intensified rapidly throughout the day. But I watched a baseball playoff game, not the news, when I got to Lahaina and remained unaware of what was happening. After the game, I went out and bought a week’s worth of groceries from a supermarket, then went to bed.
Which is why, on Monday morning, I was puzzled to be awakened by frantic text messages telling me to turn on the TV. As soon as I saw CNN anchors interviewing San Diego officials about dangerous fires I realized that instead of spending a relaxing week in paradise, I was lucky to have a 24 hour Maui layover.
A few hours later, I was running through the airport to catch a flight back to San Diego, listening to details about massive wildfires threatening lives and property near my district.
I was patched into a conference call with the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services- but the Homeland Security officials in the airport didn’t know that. They demanded that I stop running, and hang up my phone to go through the security lines. I kept the phone turned on as it went thru the X-ray machine, trying to listen to the muffled voices as the tray moved along the conveyor belt.
Meanwhile, on the tarmac, the same airplane that had carried happy vacationers to the island the day before was waiting for me to board. The captain even held the plane a few extra minutes- I had met him on the outbound flight, and he knew I was the representative for an area where thousands of people were suddenly hoping to find refuge from a rapidly growing conflagration east of San Diego.
The last call I made before turning off my phone for the flight was to my 78-year old mother, at her home in North Clairemont. She lived alone, in the house where I had grown up, only a block away from dry canyons at risk of fire. Mom was busy packing supplies and getting travel boxes ready for her collection of pets, in case she needed to evacuate: plastic carrying cases for the dog and cat, a small box for the parakeet, and larger cardboard boxes for the desert tortoises.
After assuring her I was returning home and would arrive in 5 or 6 hours, I texted a friend who had a truck, and was housesitting for me. I asked him to go stay with my mother, in case she needed to leave in a hurry with pets and whatever belongings she could carry. I hoped my apartment, a few miles away, would be safe if they needed a place to stay.
For the next 5 hours, the pilot and crew kept us informed as we headed east over the Pacific. It was sunset by the time we began our descent over the California coast. I’ll never forget seeing the orange ring of flames surrounding much of San Diego. Even from 35,000 feet it was a frightening sight.
As soon as we landed I called my mother to make sure she was safe, and to let her know I was back on the mainland. Fortunately, the fires had not made it to the Clairemont canyons. She was sitting with my house sitter, watching TV and worrying about the fires that were destroying homes only 15 miles away.
Next, I called my District Director, who was waiting at the airport. She quickly explained the situation: thousands of people from throughout the County were heading to Qualcomm Stadium – in our Assembly District.
We headed for Mission Valley, and at the stadium we began meeting Red Cross volunteers, EMTs/first responders, police officers and sheriff deputies. I asked for an update.
We were told that older adults from an assisted living facility were being housed in the “Stadium Club” – one of the few areas with air conditioning and electrical power for medical devices.
Families were setting up tents and sleeping bags on various levels of the stadium. Volunteers were providing toys and books for children, and offering to keep an eye on them, so their parents could make phone calls to their insurance companies and try to find more comfortable places to stay.
RVs, trailers, and cars were filling up the parking lot. People hauling horse trailers were directed to Fiesta Island, where they could let the animals out for some exercise. Before they left, a few horses were walking around in the stadium area.
I thanked everyone for providing safety and comfort to these fire refugees, asked what else they needed, and finally- close to midnight- headed home. I knew it was going to be a much different week than I had anticipated 24 hours earlier.
For the next 7 days, my staff and I drove all over San Diego- from the stadium to the district office to various schools and churches that were providing emergency housing for people too old or infirm to be outdoors or in the hot stadium. We watched as members of the California National Guard arrived, and began assembling massive canopies to provide shade for people in the parking lot, to get them out of the sun beating down on the black asphalt.
Radio and television stations began broadcasting live from the stadium, providing updates and information for people who otherwise were out of touch. In these early days of social media, we still relied on radio and television broadcasts to put out the call for supplies. Soon people began arriving at the stadium delivering donations of bottled water, food, clothing, bedding, water, diapers and other materials. Grocery stores provided supplies. Restaurants brought in hot meals. Insurance companies set up satellite offices to begin processing claims.
It was an exhausting but educational week. Businesses and schools closed down to keep roads clear and conserve energy since the fires were threatening to destroy power transmission towers and lines. (Later, we would learn the fires had been started by those transmission lines.)
With the regional college and university campuses closed, co-generation energy facilities at UCSD and SDSU were able to provide emergency energy into the local grid.
One-stop shops for fire survivors were set up, with city, county, state and federal staff helping them cancel water, cable, gas, electric and other utilities, to avoid paying for services no longer being used at their burned-out homes, and apply for emergency aid. I drove a friend to one of these, after visiting a huge pile of ashes that had been her home a few days before.
Governor Schwarzenegger initiated several steps to reduce the financial burden on those who had already lost so much. Since businesses were closed, the one-week waiting period for receiving unemployment insurance payments was waived. Fees to replace lost legal documents lost in the fires were temporarily eliminated. Certain requirements for securing contracts to remove fire debris were suspended to expedite the clean-ups.
A few weeks afterward, I joined with other legislators and participated in a Joint Legislative Task Force that held a day-long hearing at the University of San Diego. Other meetings were convened around the state.
We heard suggestions and after-action reports from emergency responders from throughout the region and began the process of preparing for the next fire or other major disasters. Recommendations were offered on new standards for brush-clearing, improvements to interoperability of emergency radio networks, the need for up-to-date mapping of fire-prone areas, and ideas for streamlining evacuation procedures vs. “shelter in place.”
One of the subsequent reports- “California Fire Siege 2007- An Overview” – provided us with legislative and policy recommendations to prevent future wildfires, and improve the state’s response.
Several bills were introduced, and policies initiated, as the result of these fires. Because, in the end, we know it is not a matter of “if” another wildfire or other disaster will force people to make plans for evacuations to avoid threats to lives and property.
It’s always a question of “when.”
Lori Saldaña is a candidate for the 4th District Board of Supervisors seat in 2018