Public Safety

On Wildfires’ Anniversary, Concern That Residents are Less Prepared

Video by José Eli Villanueva

As firefighters struggle to get deadly wildfires under control in Northern California, San Diego County and City officials marked the 10th anniversary of the 2007 Wildfires and called upon residents to do their part to prepare for another emergency.

The officials addressed the topic at Gillespie Field in El Cajon with regional emergency partners. The message is especially timely as the San Diego region is facing peak fire conditions, Santa Ana winds, dried out grasses and vegetation in the backcountry, and high temperatures just as it did in 2007.

Adding to the urgency, the County Office of Emergency Services commissioned a survey of nearly 1,100 residents earlier this year to ask them how prepared they were, so responses could be compared to a similar survey taken in 2007. The results showed that only half of residents asked this year were prepared to evacuate their home within 15 minutes, as compared to 74 percent who said they were ready in 2007.

San Diego now has more locally stationed resources to fight a wildfire than any other region in the nation. While emergency officials cited major improvements in fire protection, coordination and resource sharing regionwide since the October 2007 wildfires, they said the personal preparedness survey results were concerning.

“I wish I could say that all of the efforts that we have put together would prevent another major fire disaster in San Diego County but it won’t,” said Chairwoman Dianne Jacob, San Diego County Board of Supervisors. “We are far better prepared to fight that fire and the goal is to put it out while it’s still under 10 acres, but it will happen again. We don’t know when, but let’s be prepared.”

Residents were encouraged to create a personal disaster plan, practice evacuating with their family, register all cell phones with AlertSanDiego, talk with neighbors, and take steps around their home to create defensible space — except when it is too risky to operate power equipment outside because it might spark a fire.

Perhaps one of the most heartfelt pleas for personal preparedness came from Michelle Grimaldo, who lost her home in the 2007 Wildfires. She fought back tears at times recounting how she and her husband and mother had to evacuate twice, once in the middle of the night. They parked in a cleared field with the fire burning all around them. Grimaldo said she was convinced they were going to die that day and they all hugged as if they were saying goodbye. Yet, they survived.

“The tragic fires up north reiterated to my husband and I that we need to be vigilant, we need to be prepared, we need to have a plan,” Grimaldo said. “And I’ve been hearing that here right now, about defensible space, making sure you have your property cleared at least 100 feet — if you can, more. Get to know your neighbors, have a game plan for an escape, have an evacuation route–in case you do live on a road that only has one way out, what else are you going to do?

“Give yourself a fighting chance if disaster strikes. Give the firefighters the best possible advantage to save your home. Listen to the police and firefighters when they tell you to evacuate. Don’t risk your life for things. Take it from us, things can be replaced,” Grimaldo said.

The Witch Fire, Harris Fire and other blazes a decade ago killed seven people, gutted thousands of structures, burned 580 square miles and triggered the largest evacuation San Diego County has ever seen. The first fires ignited on Oct. 21.

Tony Mecham, San Diego County Fire and CAL FIRE Unit Chief said the wildfire updates in Northern California reminded him of working as a commander during the Harris Fire in 2007. He reflected back on the fatalities, the three other firefighters who were critically burned, and evacuating 22 severely burned people on that incident in that first 72 hours.

“This is the new norm we live in. Large devastating wildland fires which destroy communities and life and property have become the new norm or our new reality of what we’re dealing with. Fires are no longer just something that stays out in the backcountry,” said Mecham. “My concern is that the general public still looks on us as first responders as Plan A. We will never be your Plan A. We are the Plan B.”

Mecham said Plan A is everybody taking personal preparedness steps and being ready to evacuate when needed.

In addition to showing a declining level of readiness to evacuate in the 2017 citizen preparedness survey, only 38 percent said they have an emergency plan in case of a disaster, down from 50 percent in 2007. The County Office of Emergency Services is putting the finishing touches on the survey and expects to release the complete results next month.

“We cannot stress that enough, the need to be prepared as an entire region, as families, and as neighborhoods,” said San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer. “We hope we are never faced with another crisis like we saw ten years ago, with those fires, but the only way to face that is to be prepared and to work together as everyone’s safety is at stake.”

San Diego Fire Chief Brian Fennessey said the survey results that show personal preparedness has declined are not good news.

“Complacency, flat out, is a killer,” he said. “Citizens need to prepare themselves in advance, not have a fire truck in every driveway. Many resources are available.”

Residents can go to ReadySanDiego.org to learn how to prepare for wildfires, register for AlertSanDiego and learn how to download the SDEmergency App. Residents can also visit Ready, Set, Go! to learn what to do to get ready for wildfire.

Yvette Urrea Moe is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact