San Diego County’s 2003 wildfire losses top $2 billion


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How much did the Southern California fire storms of 2003 really cost?

Matt Rahn, a research director at San Diego State University, delved into the losses and concluded that the final bill in San Diego County alone was $2.4 billion.

“What astounded us most was the total economic loss,” Rahn said.

The expense of fighting the wildfires turned out to be less than 2% of the total. Restoring burned watersheds cost more than the firefight, according to Rahn’s tally.


San Diego Gas and Electric spent $71 million replacing thousands of charred power poles, transformers and hundreds of miles of wire. The state reimbursed the utility for more than half that.

Businesses shut down for days during the fire siege.

The fire blackened 375,917 acres, destroyed 3,241 homes and killed 16 people in the county. (All told, the 14 wildfires that raged across Southern California in late October charred 750,000 acres, burned down 3,710 homes and killed 24 people.)

Airline flights were canceled because the skies were thick with smoke. A high-tech manufacturer had to replace all the air filters in its plant. The insurance industry paid an estimated $1.1 billion in property claims.

It cost Caltrans $15 million to fix fire-damaged highways in the county.

Rahn said the figures underscore the importance of maintaining firefighting forces to control blazes in their early stages, before they become an unstoppable force of nature.

“Pay now or pay a whole lot later,’ he said. ‘We’re in an economic crisis in California, and we’re talking about reducing firefighting levels. Cutting them in the short term may actually wind up with a longer-term impact.”

For an in depth look at escalating wildfire in California and the West, check out The Times’ Pulitzer Prize winning series, ‘Big Burn.’


--Bettina Boxall