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Lessons Learned In Past Wildfires Paying Off

Lessons Learned In Past Wildfires Paying Off Now

State and county officials say they’ve made huge strides in fighting wildfires over the last decade.

Authorities are crediting the addition of firefighters, better communication and the employment of common-sense policies with saving lives and homes during this week’s wildfires.

They say lessons learned in devastating fashion left them no choice but to spend money and change their approach.

The 2003 Cedar fire killed 15 people in San Diego County, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and burned nearly 300,000 acres. It was the largest urban wildfire in California’s history.

At the time, some neighborhoods in the region didn’t have evacuation plans. In some cases, emergency workers mulled over evacuations as homes were being consumed by blazes. Firefighters in San Diego couldn't examine or battle fires from the air at night.

The 2007 Witch fire consumed 1,200 homes and scorched almost 200,000 acres. During those blazes, firefighting resources were relatively scarce.

Since 2003, the county has spent more than $285 million on fire protection. Part of the money was used to create a reverse-911 system alerting homeowners of emergencies. Two firefighting helicopters and 900 firefighters were added through the creation of the San Diego County Fire Authority.

San Diego County Supervisor Dianne Jacob said lessons learned the hard way from the 2003 and 2007 wildfires paid off this week.

"Let's not forget, the most important thing: These fires started along the coast in very urban areas,” Jacob said. “And those firefighters saved thousands of homes, and lives, during this fire event."

She said new policies allow pilots fighting fires to use their own discretion on whether to fly at night. In the past, they'd been grounded after dark.

And the region now has access to military aircraft. Cal Fire Battalion Chief Nick Schuler said those aircraft were crucial in battling the Cocos fire in San Marcos this week.

"This allows us to get those military assets very quickly, and be able to utilize them very effectively,” Schuler said. “Yesterday we had access to more than 12 military helicopters, exactly what we saw here that was used on this fire."

But Schuler and Jacob worry that this week’s unseasonably hot temperatures and Santa Ana winds may not be an aberration.

“As a native San Diegan, I have never seen Santa Ana winds in the month of May, nor these very hot, dry conditions,” Jacobs said. “We're in for it this year."

Despite upgrades to the county’s firefighting system, Jacob said residents still have to do their part by clearing brush from their property and being prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice.