Please allow me to share a timeline and behind-the-scenes look at some of what happened in our district and where my staff and I were during the first week of Firestorm 2007. Some of the sequence of events may be a bit out of order; however, I hope you’ll understand that those days seemed to blend into each other.
Sunday, October 21 – Our entire staff was notified in the afternoon of the Harris Fire in the East County and stayed in touch with County emergency personnel.
Monday, October 22 – At 3:30 AM I received a call at home from my chief of staff, Joan Wonsley, about the fires threatening North County. At 4 AM I called my daughter in Rancho Bernardo and told her to evacuate her family which she did at 4:30 AM. I then drove to South Escondido to help my son evacuate his residence and sent them to my home in Valley Center.
I drove with my son-in-law (who is bilingual in Spanish and English) to evacuation centers in Valley Center and Escondido to explain the situation and road closures to both English and Spanish speakers. I then took my son-in-law to Westwood to view his home and burned homes in the area. While in Westwood, I was interviewed along with Congressman Duncan Hunter on Fox Network News and KFI radio in Los Angeles.
I then drove to 4S Ranch to check for possible fire danger and then checked on the status of Rancho Santa Fe. At that time, the fire had not hit Del Dios.
I was trying to reach Fallbrook when the fire closed Interstate 15.
Some members of my staff had to evacuate their homes. All were in contact with County Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and maintained constituent contacts at all times.
Tuesday, October 23 - At 7:15 AM, I received a call from Ron McGowan, Principal at Valley Center High School, that help was needed at an unofficial evacuation shelter at the high school. I drove to the high school to assess the situation, then through my chief of staff; I contacted the Sheriff’s department and arranged for lunch to be delivered to what would be 3,000 evacuees.
In the afternoon, I drove to San Marcos and checked the status of the Coronado Hills Fire in San Elijo Hills near Cal State University San Marcos.
Later I visited the evacuation center in Escondido to meet with evacuees and then drove to Rancho Santa Fe by way of Carlsbad because Del Dios was closed. I was given a damage assessment tour by the RSF Association manager, Pete Smith. I also went to nearby Fairbanks Ranch and found that area was threatened, but not in immediate peril. I met with Sheriff’s deputies and firefighters and drove to Cielo in Rancho Santa Fe to view the fire.
During the day I received a call to evacuate my Valley Center home. I sent my grandchildren to Orange County and with no visible danger in sight; we prepared to defend our property as a shelter in place.
Later, while at an evacuation center in Escondido, I was again asked to be on Fox National News, and KOGO, KFI and KFMB radio. I continued to update our local radio stations with on-the-scene reports on road closures and the fire danger.
During this time, I viewed the Crosby Ranch in Rancho Santa Fe and saw how our shelter in place protection development policy resulted in not a single home burned.
Tuesday afternoon I received a call from a member of the Warner Springs Fire Council who told me they had been ordered to evacuate. I advised her to move to the evacuation center in Borrego Springs.
Wednesday, October 24 – I attended a 7 AM briefing at the Emergency Operations Center in Kearny Mesa and then drove downtown for a 9 AM meeting of the Board of Supervisors. At that meeting, a recommendation from Supervisor Dianne Jacob and me was approved to waive building permit fees for residents impacted by the fires in the unincorporated parts of the county.
During the day, I met three times with Sheriff’s deputies in Valley Center and then talked with officials at the Fallbrook Chamber of Commerce and community leaders to help coordinate the fire evacuation. Even at that time we began plans for getting people back in their homes and the process of recovery for those who had lost their homes.
I spoke by cell phone with De Luz Volunteer Fire Department Chief Mike Manchor and learned of the valiant stand his firefighters took at the Valley Oaks mobile home park.
I was in contact with the Sheriff’s Department concerning the fire in Paradise Mountain.
At 1 PM I met with officials at the Fallbrook CALFIRE Mission station.
At 1:30 PM, I met with Bob Leonard, CEO of the Fallbrook Chamber at his office along with community leader Phil Delaney about the status of Highway 76.
During the night I returned to Carlsbad, San Marcos and RSF when neighborhoods near there were threatened. I also followed strike teams into Del Dios and the Harmony Grove area and drove by Del Mar to see the horse evacuation.
All during the day and night, my staff remained in contact with the EOC and with each other.
At 4 PM, I was present at the Emergency Operations Center for the fire update.
Thursday, October 25 – I spoke with the Oceanside City Manager, Peter Weiss regarding Fallbrook evacuees.
My chief of staff fielded calls from Larry Rannals of Camp Pendleton concerning evacuees and assistance. I then went to the Community Hall in Valley Center and met with Red Cross officials who approved the Valley Center High School evacuation center as an official site. I attended fire briefings at the Valley Center headquarters and discussed lifting the evacuation order with Lt. Garrity.
That morning, my staff was able to coordinate with the Sheriff’s Department a safe return home for residents of Rancho Santa Fe.
I checked the status on the Poomacha Fire at Palomar Mountain and then that afternoon I was at the Escondido evacuation site with Governor Schwarzenegger and visited evacuees. I was interviewed again live at 4 PM on Fox Network News and later announced on KOGO that the evacuation order in Valley Center was lifted.
During the day, I was in contact with radio stations KOGO 600 and KFMB 760 to give updated information. All the while, I was doing my best to get Fallbrook safely reopened to evacuated residents. Finally, at 7:30 PM, I announced on KOGO that the Fallbrook evacuation order was lifted.
Friday, October 26 – I answered as many E-mails as I could and tried to give updates to radio stations every half hour. Through the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services and SDG & E, I began work to get an emergency generator activated in Fallbrook for residents.
Saturday, October 27 – The day was spent monitoring the progress of the fire fighting and recovery efforts.
Sunday, October 28 – At 3 PM, I attended a Town Hall event in Fallbrook. At 7:30 PM, I drove to Valley Center and thanked as many out of town emergency personnel as I could, including firefighters from San Juan, New Mexico and a Red Cross crew that drove their truck from San Antonio. My six tanks of gas in seven days of travel around North County didn’t seem that much when I met these remarkable people who came from other states to help people they didn’t know and would likely never see again.
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Supervisor Ron Roberts is the Chairman of the Board and one of the duties of the Chair is to be the spokesperson for the other Supervisors, especially during a time of emergency such as the fires. I respect that protocol and all during the week was in personal touch with Chairman Roberts. (In 2001, I was the Chair right after the attack on 9-11 and commented for the Board at that time.)
I have always found it personally repulsive when elected officials seek out the media to be seen on television, be heard on the radio or have their names in the newspapers for no other reason than to get air time or ink. While others grandstand, I’ve always believed my place was on the field of action.
With much of San Diego County still on fire, elected politicians seized their moment. Some flew into town on the heels of President Bush and Governor Schwarzenegger. They couldn’t get here fast enough and along with local politicians were like moths to the lights of the television cameras, and just about as useless. I chose to be in the Fifth district with my constituents in places like Fallbrook, Valley Center, Rancho Santa Fe, Fairbanks Ranch and 4S Ranch.
I have the deepest sympathies for those who lost property during the fires and also sympathize with people who were displaced and inconvenienced for several days. Many of those individuals told me they were happy to have homes to return to in addition to handling 100’s of phone calls and E-mails during the week.
I saw first hand the tremendous job public safety people did responding with heroism to save lives and property under near-combat conditions and have been impressed with the performance of law enforcement personnel on the local, state and federal levels as well as volunteers.
Last year, I made disaster preparedness the focal point of my year as Chairman of the Board. Not everyone shared my enthusiasm for that vision and even with the disaster of 2003 fresh on our minds; having another elected official talking about disaster preparedness was greeted by some, including the media with a collective yawn.
There was one difference in what had been done in the past and what was about to happen. Talk turned into action. With the backing of our Chief Administrative Officer, Walt Ekard, his team of executives, my fellow Supervisors and our County workforce, we accelerated our efforts to make San Diego County the best-prepared region in the nation. We used millions of dollars in County and State funds and federal grants to better perform our primary duty of public safety to more than three million people.
We were blessed to have Ron Lane as director of the Office of Emergency Services (OES). Through his leadership, our Emergency Operations Center completed a $20 million upgrade with high-tech, state-of-the-art equipment that now is a national model. It is an information center capable of waging war against the ravages of earthquakes, floods, terrorism and fires.
We recognized the need to supplement our ground attack with air support and purchased two fire-fighting and rescue helicopters; keeping them close to home at all times and stationing one permanently in Fallbrook to protect North County. The County spent $5 million a year to keep fire stations open year-round, we were part of a multi-agency effort to remove nearly 500,000 dead, dying or diseased trees, we encouraged citizens to create greater defensive space around their homes and we added to the fire-fighting arsenal of volunteer fire departments. History shows that nature will clear what man fails to remove and in doing so, often takes everything in its path.
Our next plan was to place a comprehensive personal disaster preparedness plan in every home and business in San Diego County. Through OES, such a plan was mailed to residents and businesses.
We knew without proper training, it didn’t matter how good our plans and equipment were. So your County went to work and conducted disaster drills. We evaluated how we did and what could be done to improve our performance.
Then on Sunday, October 21, four years after Firestorm 2003, the winds of terror once again became a roaring blowtorch. Facing nature’s fury in the early stages, hundreds of courageous firefighters were unable to stop fires throughout the county. When flames could not be extinguished, people had to be evacuated. Sheriff’s deputies, police officers, volunteers and the newly operational reverse 911 system placed 640,000 people under evacuation orders and took them out of harm’s way.
Sadly, several people died as a result of the fires and huge numbers of homes were destroyed. The heartache was deep and touched us all. However, through it all, those of us here and millions of people around the world watching and reading news reports could not help noticing something different was happening. Most of the displaced were able to find evacuation centers that had food, shelter, a place to sleep, and counseling, animal care—even back rubs, and all without one incident of violence. And unlike what happened in 2003, there was near seamless cooperation and communication between public safety agencies, government officials, charitable organizations and churches.
Now that the embers of Firestorm 2007 have cooled off, we’ve activated Local Assistance Centers and begun the Herculean task of rebuilding. We are gathering data to evaluate all stages of the response from the first spark to the last person who returned home.
We have started soil erosion control, re-seeding, working with SDG & E to bring power back, and monitoring water quality. We are now processing building permits and helping constituents on a case-by-case basis.
One of our findings will be that there is no single key to success for what we have witnessed and achieved. However, while nature combined for the perfect fire storm; millions of people came together through planning, assisting, giving and protecting to create something, while far from perfect, was close to a text book example of disaster response. From the County’s perspective, I share the pride more than 18,000 County employees feel, who were part of a tremendous team effort.
I hope these thoughts will give you a realistic perspective of the true story behind our response and allow you to focus on what really matters; helping rebuild our North County to the gem it once was.
Supervisor, Fifth District