Now that the blazes that raged across the county last week have died down, the retrospectives about how local agencies performed have started to heat up.

KPBS, the U-T, the Los Angeles Times and others have all examined what changed in the wake of devastating wildfires in 2003 and 2007 and how those measures came into play last week.

Here are the four biggest shifts they identified.

Communication and Cooperation

County Supervisor Ron Roberts told us on this weekend’s VOSD Radio podcast that communication among agencies and equipment to handle the fires had both improved over the last few years, though he tempered his enthusiasm with some regrets about his 2008 fire parcel tax not making the cut.

Cal Fire also chalked up assistance from military aircraft (though red tape caused a brief delay) to its “immediate response” agreement with the Navy and Marine Corps to send helicopters, according to the U-T.

Officials said improved relations with outside agencies made all the difference. From the L.A. Times:

Thom Porter, Cal Fire’s assistant regional chief, said there were “some pretty strong conversations” this week among officials from different agencies about how to fight the fires, and from those conversations came a united strategy.

“I’ve been humbled by comments from chiefs who were not friends of Cal Fire in the past,” Porter said. “We could not have had that event 10 years ago.”

Consolidating Resources

The creation of the San Diego County Fire Authority in June 2008 seems to have made a significant impact in coordinating resources. Back in October, Supervisor Dianne Jacob highlighted the reform effort to put state fire stations, volunteer fire companies and two fire protection districts under the same system:

County reforms ushered in more training and physical requirements for firefighters of all backgrounds and invested millions of dollars in new equipment, fire stations and upgrades.

The county has also invested in better communication systems for residents and firefighters. County officials created a cell phone app and established AlertSanDiego, a system that allows residents to sign up for cell phone and email alerts about county emergencies.

And the fire stations that currently fall under the authority’s umbrella are now bound together with a shared dispatch system.  This means if a brush fire ignites in Campo and the fire crews there aren’t available, state firefighters who work close by can respond instead.

Strength in Numbers

The fleet of available responders certainly increased. KPBS reported:

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.

Building Code Changes

Porter of Cal Fire told the U-T that a 2005 law expanding the so-called defensible space requirement around homes probably saved plenty of folks from material loss.

A scene repeated over and again this past week: massive flames burning up a canyon or down a hillside toward homes that appeared to be in peril but in the end were saved and unscathed … Fire would slow or halt as heavy brush gave way to bare dirt or ice plant.

… “That’s an amazing thing that has changed over the last 10 years. Within the past decade we have an incredible mix of that defensible space and building code improvement that has saved many of these homes,” Porter said.

Girding for What’s Next

Even as they’ve lauded the improvements, officials seemed wary of what’s to come during an extended crisis-prone season.

“I’ve lived here my entire life, but I’ve never seen these Santa Ana winds — these devil winds — in May,” Jacob told the LA Times. “We’re now in a situation where there is a year-round risk of fire in San Diego County.”

She urged residents to be diligent in clearing brush and drawing up evacuation plans with their families.

For some, it’s too late to prepare for the worst. The 65 homeowners whose houses were destroyed last week can also look to the past for advice on how to rebuild with an eye to fire prevention.

Catherine Green

Catherine Green was formerly the deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handled daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects.

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