Friday, Nov. 9, 2007 | On a dry, blustery September day in 1970, a power line fell in the mountains east of San Diego and sent up a warning that went largely unheeded.
Today, the story sounds familiar: Sparks fly, dry winds catch them and no one can stop what comes next. On that day, the flames screamed south, jumping Interstate 8. With gusts hitting 82 mph, firefighters could do little to halt the ensuing inferno that killed eight people and almost burned to San Diego’s southeastern boundary.
The incident came to be known as the Laguna Fire and set a record as the largest wildfire in modern California history, a mark surpassed several times since.
The massive Santa Ana wind-stoked blaze happened at the perfect time for the city of San Diego’s leaders to learn a lesson. The Navy town was about to go through a massive 20-year growth spurt that today defines its sprawling boundaries.
If the Laguna Fire had a lesson, it was this: Wind-driven wildfire was a real threat to San Diego’s urban fringes, the very place where development was about to occur.
But the lesson went unheeded. In the decades after the fire, San Diego’s population soared 85 percent, from 700,000 to more than 1.3 million. Residents began moving to the scenic fringe of wildland, to chaparral-covered areas that were threatened or burned by the 2003 Cedar Fire and 2007 Witch Fire — places such as fire-affected Rancho Bernardo and Scripps Ranch.