Oct. 25–Nov. 4, 2003

•Total Acres: 273,246

•Estimated Suppression Cost: $29,880,826

•Firefighters assigned at Peak: 4,275

•Residences Destroyed: 2,232

•Commercial Structures Destroyed: 22

•Other Structures Destroyed: 566

•Lives Lost: 14

•Communities Evacuated: Ramona, Pine Hills, Barona Mesa,

San Diego Country Estates, Poway, Descano, Flynn Springs,

Jamul, Pine Valley, El Cajon, Santee, Lakeside, San Diego,

Julian, Mt. Laguna, Escondido, Crest, Cuyamaca, Alpine,

Guatay, Santa Isabel, Ranchito, Wynola, Santa Ysabel

•Cause: Human

•Fuel Type: Grass, medium to heavy brush, and timber

Although the entire 2003 Fire Siege was historic, it is the Cedar Fire that will set the benchmark by which southern California fires will be measured for years to come. It was the largest fire to ever burn in California, tragically killing 14 people and destroying thousands of structures. Extreme fire behavior sent walls of flames down upon communities too fast for many people to get out of the way.

The Cedar Fire started at dusk on October 25 th, too late to safely use aircraft. By midnight there were 340 firefighters at the Command Post ready to fight the fire which at the time was burning in an inaccessible area. The rugged terrain made conditions too dangerous for firefighters to traverse out to the fire at night. The Incident Commanders, preparing for the next day, immediately ordered additional resources, intending to hit the fire hard with aircraft and ground crews when the sun came up. The Cedar Fire didn’t wait. The dreaded Santa Ana wind hit the fire about midnight and any hope of the fire staying within the Cleveland National Forest was lost as the fire raced toward nearby communities at record speeds. In the first few hours thirteen civilians perished as the fire trapped and over ran both civilians and the responding emergency personnel. It would not be stopped.

Prior to the start of the Cedar Fire, San Diego fire agencies had sent many resources north to help with the fires that had started in the previous four days, some of which were growing rapidly and threatening many communities. On the 24 th, CDF and the other fire departments of San Diego County recognized that the burning conditions were ripe for a large fire in the San Diego area also, and issued direction that all stations should stay staffed with the remaining resources with no further assignments accepted for fires outside the county. The decision paid off as the need for fire engines escalated rapidly. By 10:00 p.m. on the 26 th, the Cedar Fire was estimated to be 182,000 acres with 1,200 firefighters scrambling to evacuate residents and protect what structures they could. When the wind changed direction, the five mile long flank of the fire became the head of the fire. At the peak of the burning, the Cedar Fire grew at a rate of 12,000 acres per hour. Before it was done, the fire would burn into or threaten over 25 communities plus scattered ranches.

The fire was huge. Two Command Teams were ordered. A CDF Incident Command team arrived first followed by a Federal National Team. The CDF Team immediately joined with law enforcement in a unified command, greatly improving the evacuation effort. When the Federal Team arrived, the fire was split, the CDF Team taking the west zone and the Federal Team taking the east zone.

This improved the span of control, safety and logistics of managing the huge workforce that eventually exceeded 4,200 personnel. Initial confusion from responding resources on which zone to report to were quickly resolved.

Social and political demands became problematic, reportedly affecting the Incident Commanders’ ability to make timely decisions and focus on the task at hand. A congressman’s house was destroyed and there was pressure from elected officials and others to immediately use military resources. These demands could not be met due to safety rules, the laws governing the use of military, and the amount of time it takes to train and deploy the military resources for firefighting missions. To relieve political pressure, the U.S. Forest Service ordered a battalion of Marines on the 28 th, in spite of a favorable weather forecast and the fact that over 3,000 personnel were already assigned to the fire. This order was cancelled the following day as damp weather entered the area.

Due to the large number of big fires across Southern California, a tremendous workload was being placed on the normal resource ordering system. All fires were experiencing delays in obtaining resources. Likewise, as the Cedar Fire grew, Incident Commanders had to adjust their suppression objectives to match the available resources and place them in the most critical areas until additional resources arrived. This shortage also resulted in some firefighters working very long shifts and exceeding the maximum work/rest cycles that firefighting agencies use to keep personnel from succumbing to fatigue after long hours of hard work.

Even during the height of the firefight, elected officials and the news media criticized the fire agencies of not fighting the fire aggressively enough. The Incident Commanders and Agency Administrators now had the fire to fight as well as a need to respond to the rapidly growing political and public demand for information and answers. Dividing responsibilities, Agency Administrators tried to handle the large number of interviews, press conferences and the negative media coverage, while the Incident Commanders focused the efforts of their people on the firefight. The negative reaction from outside the fire was widespread and loud.

The fight continued as the wind had shifted to a westerly and the fire headed east towards Cuyamaca and Julian. Firefighters were working long hours, not leaving their posts until relief arrived. The critical public reaction had a negative affect on the morale of the firefighters who were working in extreme conditions and risking their lives to save people and property. Then, one of their own fell. A Novato Engine Company was trapped and overrun while defending homes in the Julian area. One firefighter was killed and the three others were injured. This tragic event could not and did not slow down the fire fight. A special accident review team was brought in to investigate the accident so the Incident Management Team could continue with the firefight itself.

With the wind shift, the fire was now burning toward the old Pines Fire which had burned in 2002. That recent burn area allowed the firefighters to use the lack of heavy fuels as a fire break where the Cedar Fire could be stopped effectively.

The stories of loss, heroic actions, lives and property saved, and the affects across a large area of Southern California are too numerous to put into one document. Lessons learned from big fires during the siege will help shape the policies of fire, law and other public agencies as these events are studied to see how things can be improved. The Cedar Fire will be a significant part of those reviews and will be a case study for firefighters of the future, who always study the past to learn their trade and improve their knowledge of how do the best they can with what they are given.

Source: California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (2004). California fire siege 2003: The story. Retrieved January 18, 2005 from http://www.fire.ca.gov/php/fire_er_2003siege-video.php