Harmony Grove Fire
The Harmony Grove fire of October 21, 1996 was the most serious emergency event in Carlsbad's history.
At 5:06 p.m., slightly over three hours after the fire began in the unincorporated community of Harmony Grove, shifting winds drove the fire across the southeastern boundary of the city, and into residential neighborhoods of La Costa.
By midnight, the winds subsided and the fire began to die out, leaving $11.8 million in private loss in the form of 54 Carlsbad homes destroyed and dozens of others damaged. Fortunately, no fatalities occurred in Carlsbad, however, four firefighters and two residents were injured. Sadly, earlier that afternoon, David Hammond, a Harmony Grove resident, was severely burned as he attempted to evacuate his home. Mr. Hammond would later succumb to those injuries.
During the early hours of the fire, Carlsbad stripped its resources to a minimum, dispatching unit after unit to the Harmony Grove area. Although the fire was advancing on a bearing that would skirt the city, the strategy was to try at all costs to control it early before it could approach the city or reach developed areas in the northeast city limits of Encinitas. When the fire unexpectedly changed direction and began to burn west into Carlsbad, what remained of the city's forces were dispatched to the La Costa neighborhoods, along with the last of the remaining fire mutual aid units in the county.
Deployment and Aid
In addition to the deployment of fire, police and public works personnel to the fire scene, 55 city employees responded to the city's Emergency Operating Center and key offices in accordance with the City Emergency Plan. Within one hour of the fire's assault on the city, the EOC was operational, and communication with field command was established. At 6:25 p.m., in accordance with the City Emergency Plan, the city manager proclaimed the existence of a state of emergency in the City of Carlsbad. The County of San Diego likewise proclaimed an emergency, followed the next day by the Governor, who in turn urged the President to declare the county a disaster area. On October 23, 1996, President Clinton declared the existence of a state of emergency in the county.
The fire was contained by 6 p.m. on October 23, and fully controlled 24 hours later. More than 700 firefighters from state and federal agencies responded to Carlsbad's call for assistance. Many traveled several hundred miles and therefore did not arrive until well after the fire had been contained.
Immediately following the incident, and for months thereafter, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Governor's Office of Emergency Services, Red Cross, Salvation Army and other private organizations worked with victims to help them meet their care and shelter needs. City building, planning and engineering departments enacted emergency policies to facilitate the rebuilding process. Within 18 months of the fire, rebuilding permits had been issued for all but two of the homes lost.
The combined service expenses incurred by the communities of Carlsbad, Harmony Grove, San Marcos and Encinitas approached $1 million. Carlsbad's losses exceeded $500,000, approximately $300,000 of which would ultimately be recovered through reimbursement by FEMA and OES.
Over half the city's response costs were related to stabilization of the hillsides burned over by the fire. It was feared that heavy rains predicted within days after the fire would wash the loose soil from the denuded hillsides and steep canyon walls and carry it downstream, subjecting facilities and valuable habitat to flood damage and/or heavy sedimentation. During the weeks following the fire, city engineering staff employed Department of Corrections personnel and other conservation services to create sediment control check dams and desiltation basins that successfully controlled runoff over the entire fire area.
- Dry east winds of moderate to high velocity
- Low humidity and high temperature
- Overtaxed firefighting resources due to simultaneous incidents throughout the region
- Combustible roofs
- Restricted traffic flow during evacuation due to road repair
- Sudden evacuation order to residents
- Communication restricted due to inadequate radio system
- Onlookers impeding fire operations.
Since the Fire
The City of Carlsbad has since upgraded its roofing ordinance to exclude the use of wood as a roof covering, and has been a key participant in the development and implementation of a new countywide radio system that should eliminate the communication difficulties experienced during the incident. As of this writing, the city is also evaluating telephone communication systems that will permit direct contact with large numbers of residents simultaneously during emergencies.
It must be noted that in the aftermath of this incident, as with any serious emergency, some residents will voice displeasure with the manner in which it was handled and the assistance they received. While no amount of planning can prepare the public or their governing bodies to deal efficiently with every contingency, it is the position of the City of Carlsbad that despite the shortcomings and difficulties, the emergency response effort by the city, the County of San Diego, the State of California and the U.S. government was reasonable and appropriate.