After the Fires: San Diego Rises from the Ashes

Travel writer and San Diego resident Debbie K. Hardin gives us an on-the-scene perspective of the city, along with an excerpt from her book Great Destinations: San Diego and Tijuana, demonstrating why there's so much to love about this resilient locale.
By Debbie K. Hardin
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If you flipped on the TV, looked through a newspaper, or surfed the web anytime during the last week of October, you were bombarded with images of Southern California in flames. San Diego, in particular, was ravaged by several horrific fires that burned in the north, south, and east parts of the county, and the seasonal hot, dry Santa Ana winds all but ensured that firefighters had a brutally long battle to get them under control.

Over the course of a few days, more than a million people in San Diego were evacuated from their homes, in what turned out to be the largest displacement of U.S. citizens since the Civil War. Thankfully, local and state authorities erred on the side of caution, and most evacuees returned home within 48 hours to find their homes and their neighborhoods intact. Sadly, more than a thousand homes were lost to the fires, and it will take years for hard-hit neighborhoods like Rancho Bernardo to rebuild.

Despite the devastation and unimaginable loss the many victims of the fires suffered, there is good news to report: San Diego is alive and well and as beautiful and welcoming to visitors as ever. Although more than 300,000 acres burned—a staggering 25% of the county—the vast majority of this land falls in remote regions, in the numerous canyons and mountains that criss-cross the outlying suburbs and unincorporated areas. No losses were suffered along the coastline and westernmost portion of the city—where more than 75% of the population lives and where almost all tourist attractions are located.

Guests visiting popular beach communities like La Jolla, Del Mar, and Coronado will see no fire damage whatsoever, nor will visitors to the popular Gaslamp Quarter downtown, the tourist mecca of historic Old Town, or the pretty string of beach cities that fall along the scenic Coast Highway.  Likewise, major attractions like SeaWorld, the San Diego Zoo, Legoland, and Balboa Park were completely untouched by fires, and in fact were not close to harm's way.

The San Diego Wild Animal Park, located in the San Pasqual Valley, in the east county, was threatened by the fires, however, and took extreme precautions, including evacuation of animals. But thanks to the phenomenal efforts of firefighters—those based in San Diego and beyond—and of many employees of the Wild Animal Park, who themselves stayed behind throughout the ordeal to battle the flames, nothing inside the park perimeter was burned. Visitors will see charred vegetation to the fence line, but inside the more than 2,000 acres of the park, animals once again roam through the expansive open habitats and the tens of thousands of endangered plant species on display still flourish.

And there's more good news. San Diego handled the emergency in typical southern California fashion: With a friendly smile, a willingness to help others, and a fierce commitment to protect the quality of life that attracts so many to San Diego. When displaced San Diegans were told to evacuate to the Qualcomm Stadium, a large, outdoor football arena used by the San Diego Chargers, it was difficult not to be haunted by the debacle at the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina—when thousands who sought shelter there were left to fend for themselves in a lawless, inhumane setting. However, it was immediately clear that Southern Californians were determined that those displaced to the stadium were not going to suffer unnecessarily. Donations of food, toiletries, diapers, tents, blankets, toys, and clothing poured in. So generous were San Diegans that those in charge of relief efforts soon begged people via the TV air waves to stop bringing donations, because within 24 hours they received much more than they needed to care for the more than 7,000 folks who called the stadium their temporary home. Border Patrol agents on special assignment walked the corridors of Qualcomm to ensure orderly behavior; temporary showers and restroom facilities were brought in; teachers from throughout the county were asked to report to the stadium to help keep children busy; local news stations carefully broadcast the status of the fire across the stadium jumbo tron; bands played to entertain the evacuees; clowns showed up to make balloon animals and circus performers entertained in the parking lot; and local restaurants served thousands of hot meals to the evacuees and to the volunteers who poured in to Qualcomm by the thousands. By the time Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger arrived to meet with evacuees at the stadium, there were as many volunteers helping at Qualcomm as there were displaced citizens.

Elsewhere in the city, evacuees flooded local hotels, which threw open their doors to temporarily homeless individuals—many suspending their no-animals policies to allow families to bring in their beloved pets, without whom many would not leave their homes. Swank downtown hotels were booked at 100% during the crisis, and reported turning away only one person: A woman who hoped to check into a four-star resort with a dairy cow. (She was redirected to the Del Mar Fairgrounds, which was able to accommodate her and her bovine companion.)

San Diego politicians, as well as federal representatives, have stepped in and stepped up to provide financial relief, and locals have been impressed both by how well orchestrated the emergency response was and by how quickly life has returned to normal throughout most of the county. Without a doubt, San Diego bears the scars of the fire, and its citizens are deeply sympathetic to those who lost their homes or livelihoods during the tragedy. However, visitors who want to discover or rediscover this charming city should understand that the community is now back open for business and eager to welcome tourists, who will see little (if any) evidence of the fires. Today guests to San Diego will find not only the blue skies, warm sunshine, tall palm trees, and laid-back attitude for which the city is famous; they will also find a city reenergized by the united purpose of rebuilding damaged neighborhoods and will encounter locals who are even more thankful to be living in what most of us believe is still the America's Finest City. Copyright (c) 2007 Debbie K. Hardin. Permission required to reprint.

Published: 14 Nov 2007 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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