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In October 2003, a confluence in southern California of low humidity, dead vegetation, and Santa Ana winds created the conditions for a firestorm-multiple fires that burned for some two weeks, scorched hundreds of thousands of acres, destroyed thousands of buildings, and took 24 lives. One conflagration, the Cedar Fire in San Diego County, became the largest in state history. While California boasts one of the best firefighting operations in the world, with exhaustive coordination across federal, state and local boundaries, this set of fires sent the system reeling. In the midst of operational chaos, highly placed elected officials in San Diego entered the fray with offers of military aircraft and helicopters to fight the fire-which the firefighters did not want. This case tells the story of what can happen when the operational imperative-to fight fires effectively but safely-collides with the political imperative to override established procedures as necessary to protect the public.
The case allows for discussion of crisis management and crisis communication. It allows students to debate how responsive line fire department officials should be to political suggestions and pressures. It also raises the issue of preparedness. San Diego County historically had no county fire department and laxly enforced building codes; moreover, development in fire-prone areas had proceeded briskly. The case raises the question: is it possible to prevent future megafires by building larger fire departments, or should the search for solutions begin with prevention? The case can be used to in courses on political management, crisis management, or domestic preparedness (for natural disasters).
|Curriculum Area:||Democracy, Politics, & Institutions|
Management, Leadership, & Decision Sciences
|Policy Area:||Communication, Public Opinion, and the Press|
Environment and Natural Resources
Institutions of Government - U.S.
National and International Security
Disaster Preparedness and Response
State or Provincial Government