Public Safety

Ten Years After: Safer, Better Prepared

Firefighting helicopters, new fire engines and equipment, high-speed telephone and cellphone alert systems, the removal of hundreds of thousands of dead and dying trees, the improvement of communications systems for emergency responders and the creation of San Diego County Fire Authority.

Those are just a few of the County actions that have made the San Diego County region better prepared and safer today — a decade after the 2003 firestorms — County, City and fire leaders said Friday at an event in Scripps Ranch to mark the firestorms 10th anniversary.

County Board of Supervisors Chairman Greg Cox and Supervisor Dianne Jacob joined City of San Diego Interim Mayor Todd Gloria, San Diego City Councilman Mark Kersey, San Diego Fire-Rescue Chief Javier Mainar, and Cal Fire and Fire Authority Chief Thom Porter to remember the 2003 and 2007 firestorms and the improvements that have been made in their wake.

County Supervisors started working to improve fire protection and disaster preparedness almost as soon as the Cedar Fire sprang to life 10 years ago on Oct. 25, 2003.

The largest wildfire in California history, the Cedar Fire was one of 14 fires that burned out of control across Southern California in October 2003, including three others in San Diego County: the Paradise, Otay and Roblar fires. Propelled by ferocious Santa Ana winds, the Cedar Fire moved faster than anyone had ever seen, reportedly burning 80,000 acres in just 10 hours at its peak — more than 2 acres per second. Before it was done, it had burned into or endangered 25 communities, killed 15 people, destroyed more than 2,200 homes and scorched 273,246 acres.

“The Cedar Fire was a tragedy that awakened everyone to the fact that destructive wildfires are San Diego County’s biggest natural threat,” Cox said Friday. “But out of the ashes came the understanding that we are all stronger when we work together — residents, private and nonprofit entities, and government.”

Some of the actions the County’s Board has taken since the 2003 and 2007 fires include:

  • Expanded contracts with Cal Fire in 2004 to provide year-round, 24-7 coverage in remote areas of the County’s backcountry.
  • Bought two firefighting helicopters in 2004 to serve under County authority.
  • Continued to buy new fire engines and equipment to support rural firefighters.
  • Created the San Diego County Fire Authority in 2008 to unify the administration, communications and training of rural volunteer fire agencies and extend “around the clock” fire and emergency medical protection to areas that previously had limited or part-time “on-call” protection.
  • Upgraded the County’s Emergency Operations Center — recognized by the federal government and State as the center to coordinate regional response in countywide disasters.
  • Spent $22 million to improve the County’s Regional Communications System to ensure that firefighters, law enforcement and other “first responders” can talk and coordinate actions better in disasters.
  • Upgraded and expanded an infrared “eye-in-the-sky” system that equips a firefighting plane with high-tech cameras that can “see” where fires are spreading or dying out even through smoke.
  • Created a high-speed telephone alert system and the AlertSanDiego system to be able to quickly send county residents emergency information or evacuation messages at their home or cellphones.
  • Created the San Diego County Emergency, Ready San Diego and San Diego County Recovery websites to improve emergency communications with the public.
  • Created an eight-page Family Disaster Plan and Personal Survival Guide — and mailed out 1.1 million copies to residents — to help people prepare themselves to deal with disasters.
  • Improved planning processes, building codes and regulations to ensure fire-resistant building and design, and to encourage defensible space around homes and buildings.
  • Updated the County’s general plan to shift a significant portion of potential future development to areas with already-established infrastructure, including fire protection.

San Diego County Wildfire Preparation and Response, list of improvements since 2003 and 2007 wildfires (PDF)

Below: animation shows spread of Cedar Fire. Created by Harry D. Johnson, Department of Geography, San Diego State University.

Gig Conaughton is a communications specialist with the County of San Diego Communications Office. Contact