The Free Press, Mankato, MN

State, national news

May 16, 2014

Lessons from 2003 fires help San Diego area

SAN DIEGO (AP) — The weekend before nine wildfires erupted in the San Diego area, scores of state firefighters were sent along with engines and aircraft to the region — knowing that the forecast of a heat wave and gusty winds was setting the stage for a tinderbox.

The positioning of crews was among several steps fire officials say they have been fine-tuning since 2003 when the San Diego area experienced one of the worst infernos in California's history. Communications between firefighting agencies has improved, residents are notified more quickly when to evacuate, and more aircraft are available to dump water on fast-moving flames.

A flare-up Thursday prompted 18,400 new evacuation notices in and around San Marcos, a north San Diego, suburb, and served as a reminder of how quickly conditions can turn. But with cooler temperatures forecast, there was an overwhelming sense that far more damage could have been inflicted on a region of more than 3 million people.

This week's unseasonably early wildfires have driven tens of thousands from their homes and shut down schools and amusement parks, including Legoland, which reopened Thursday. Flames have charred more than 15 square miles and caused more than $20 million in damage, burning at least eight houses, an 18-unit apartment complex and two businesses. Firefighters found a badly burned body Thursday in a transient camp in Carlsbad — the first apparent fatality — and a Camp Pendleton Fire Department firefighter was treated for heat exhaustion while battling a square-mile blaze on the Marine base.

San Diego County had some of the strongest Santa Ana winds Wednesday, with gusts reaching up to 50 mph, which may have set conditions for fires to be easily ignited, just as they were in 2003. The 2003 Cedar Fire scorched more than 437 square miles, nearly 3,000 buildings — including more than 2,000 homes — and killed 15 people before being contained.

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