This time, the region fought fire with firepower.
When the recent wildfires struck, well-coordinated and aggressive attacks were launched. Aircraft buzzed overhead, dropping water and retardant. The aircraft came from a number of agencies — including the military — all working in concert. Some even flew at night.
New technologies — such as a mobile app — were used to warn residents of potential danger and update them with developments. And damage — at least compared to previous fires — was minimal.
But were these fires a true test of the region's ability to control wildfires?
Do we have the proper resources and emergency criteria to handle one of the region's greatest — and arguably growing — threats?
And what happens in the fall, after a long, hot summer only compounds the effects of the current drought?
The most recent fires caught many by surprise both by their numbers — there were nearly a dozen — and how early they came.
May is when many locals bemoan the weather conditions because it's usually cloudy and cool. Hence the term, “May Gray.” But May was rarely gray this year, as temperatures soared above 100 degrees and Santa Ana winds roared.
“As a native San Diegan, I have never seen the Santa Ana winds — also called the devil winds — in the month of May,” San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob told the Los Angeles Times.
She called it nothing short of a game changer. "We're now in a situation where there is a year-round risk of fire in San Diego County."
Before, the region braced itself in autumn for wildfires and for good reason. That's when San Diego saw two of the more destructive wildfires in its history. In 2003 and 2007, wildfires rampaged in that season, fueled by Santa Ana winds.
The Cedar Fire, the largest in state history, struck in October of 2003 and burned nearly 300,000 acres and destroyed more than 3,000 homes and structures. Fifteen people died. In 2007, again in October, the Witch Creek and Guejito fires erupted, causing similar horrific damages. Ten lives were lost.
The recent fires, in comparison, burned 27,000 acres and 55 structures. One person died.
Emergency responses to the fires, particularly the Cedar Fire, came under heavy criticism. The region's emergency system could hardly be described as a system. It was a hodgepodge of agencies that communicated poorly — if at all. They operated under arcane rules that hampered responses.
The fires led to a number of reforms, including the consolidation of some fire fighting agencies into the San Diego County Fire Authority.
Technological advances also have been realized. Spread throughout the fire-prone back country are video cameras that provide live feeds of the parched areas. A detection system goes off if a fire breaks out.
The city and county have air power now.
The county and other organizations have also been more aggressive in educating homeowners on the importance of clearing brush from their properties, and they can be fined if they don't so. The county also has its own brush removal program.
The big question: Is it enough?
The county is in the process of doing an after-action report on how the emergency response was handled and what changes, if any, are necessary.
“We want to know what we could have done better," Jacob said. "That’s the next thing we’re going to be tackling."
Local officials say they are making progress. Fire agencies said cooperation was the order of the day. Command is now centralized.
“Ten years ago, we were still a very disjointed group of fire departments,” Cal Fire Assistant Region Chief Thom Porter told the U-T San Diego. Today, “we are working hand and glove,” he said. “We know each others’ strengths and weaknesses, and we are complementing each other.”
Local leaders also noted that the region has ponied up financially as well. As much as $285 million has been spent since the Cedar Fire to improve fire fighting capabilities.
That hasn't always been the case, critics say. Over the years, a number of people have accused San Diego — which does not have a county-wide fire department — of being cheap and relying too greatly on the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and outside firefighting resources.
"I'm sorry to say, but I believe the city has underfunded its fire services for years," said U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein at a 2007 hearing on the wildfires.
A 2008 report done by the San Diego Regional Fire Safety Forum recommended that a county-wide fire department be created and more firefighters and equipment be realized.
Former San Diego Fire Chief Tom Bowman, who led the study, has consistently maintained the region has not done enough. He quit in 2006 because he was fed-up with the lack of financial commitment. He's also noted how other agencies have been miffed at San Diego as well. The report said: "California fire service leaders are growing frustrated by being asked to continually help San Diego when San Diego has not provided adequate fire protection resources on its own."
And San Diego's location at the bottom of the state makes it even more vulnerable, the report noted. "Because San Diego is located in a geographical cul-de-sac, mutual aid requests, when filled, often come from great distances. Multiple fires in the southern California region also significantly impact resource availability."
For such reasons, San Diego has fared worse than other parts of the state when it comes to wildfire destruction. "Since the first wildland/urban interface fire destroyed 584 homes in Berkeley in1923, California has lost well over 18,000 residential structures and hundreds of lives to similar fires," the report said. "Suffering a disproportionate share of California’s life and structure loss is San Diego County, which accounts for 20%."
In 2008, months after the report, voters failed to pass a measure that would have provided an additional funding source for fire needs. A parcel tax increase would have generated $50 million a year.
The criticism regarding San Diego's lack of spending continues today. In a recent Christian Science Monitor story, Richard Halsey, president of the California Chaparral Institute in Escondido, said San Diego is “easily one of the least prepared (counties) in the entire country” when it came wildfires.
He called the taxpayers, “stingy.”
Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College in Claremont, was equally harsh, telling the publication:
“San Diego County’s astonishing lack of professional firefighting units … means they are off-loading their responsibilities on other taxpayers across the state who pay to protect them and to protect them in landscapes that are fire-prone, fire-created.”
While resources are necessary to fight fires, resources are also needed for one other key thing:
Warn people that hell is coming their way.
In the Cedar Fire, that didn't happen. Most of the 15 deaths — a dozen — happened when the fire roared down canyons along Wildcat Canyon Road in rural East County early Sunday morning.
Some people went to bed that night seeing smoke in the distance, but there were no calls to evacuate. Santa Ana winds, though, were about to whip up. When they do, flaming embers can be carried for miles.
An inferno soon erupted.
People died while trying to flee in cars. People died in their homes, as fire engulfed the structures. People jumped in swimming pools to survive. One couple fled to a river bed.
Many complained they received no warning or were only roused by emergency crews and sheriff's deputies just minutes before the fires were upon them.
Today, those people may have been saved by early warnings systems that were not in place at the time.
For instance, a reserve 911 system was operational in 2007, before that year's wildfires hit. With that, calls are made to homes and businesses in impacted areas via landlines. And mobile phone users can request to have their numbers on the list as well.
Additionally, the county created a mobile app, SD Emergency, to alert and inform people of emergencies. “We’re way ahead. It’s been just five years since the fires in 2007, and I feel like we’re 50 years ahead of where we were,” said County Supervisor Ron Roberts at the time of the app's release in September 2012.
But the system did have its glitches during the most recent fires. For instance, somebody hacked into county's emergency app and wrote “fire in your pants” in the notes section for one of the fires.
Even the New York Daily News picked up the story.
And the most recent fires broke out during the day, when people are up and about. If fires broke out in the early morning hours — and spread quickly — as was the case of the Cedar Fire, it remains to be seen how well all the new technology will work.
At least, though, it's in place. Before, police and fire crews drove through streets, warning people.
Wildfires are not going away. If anything, they may intensify.
Some argue that climate change is making us more susceptible to droughts and hot weather and hence, wildfires. And our development has spread throughout the county, to areas that are fire-prone.
CoreLogic, a data services provider, produced a WildFire Hazard Risk Report in 2013, which included those areas in San Diego being at the highest risk. According to the report, San Diego “contains more than 16,000 properties with Wildfire Risk Score of 81 or above with a combined estimated value of $2.7 billion.”
Rural areas such as Julian, Ramona and Alpine had the highest risks.
According to the report, damage from wildfires is spiking dramatically. In the 1960s, less than 500 structures were lost annually to wildfires. Between 2000 and 2008, that number grew to more than 2,500.
The report concluded: “If recent wildfire trends has shown us anything, it is that wildfire risk is a real and immediate threat to many homes in the western U.S. As property development continues outward from urban areas and into the Wildland-Urban interface, the number of homes exposed to the risk and the amount of damage realized each year will continue to increase.”
In 2008, a fire task force created a map showing the areas of San Diego County at the greatest risk of fire. To say they are sizable would be an understatement. One is a 170,000 acre swath of land running from Mount Laguna to Spring Valley.
Another area of concern back then? A 32,000-acre patch of land that included Rancho Santa Fe and other nearby communities.
Parts of those communities burned during the most recent fires. The Bernardo fire scorched more than 1,500 acres.
Of course not.