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Smoke from the fires drift toward Arizona and Nevada after the wind shifted on October 29
The Cedar Fire was a human-caused wildfire which burned out of control through a large area of Southern California in October 2003. Driven by Santa Ana Winds, the fire burned 2,820 buildings (including 2,232 homes) and had killed 15 people including one firefighter before being contained on November 3, making it the largest fire in recorded California history. The Cedar Fire was one of 15 fires throughout Southern California that month, including the Old Fire, which became known as the "2003 Firestorm" and the "Fire Siege of 2003."

Fire chronology

The Cedar Fire began in the Cleveland National Forestmarker and was reported at 5:37 p.m. PDT on October 25, 2003 south of Ramonamarker in central San Diego Countymarker. Within ten minutes of the initial report of the fire, the U.S. Forest Service had deployed 10 fire engines, two water tenders, two hand crews and two chief officers. Within 30 minutes, 320 firefighters and six fire chiefs were en route. A San Diego County Sheriff's Department ASTREA helicopter that was rescuing a hunter spotted the fire at about the same time as the first phone report was received and called for an air response. Another Sheriff's helicopter, equipped with a Bambi bucket, en route to the fire and only minutes away, was called off by a National Forest Service fire chief because it was after sunset "cutoff" for firefighting air attack missions.

Between the time the fire started and midnight the predicted strong east winds, Santa Ana winds, surfaced and the fire burned 5,319 acres. By 3 a.m. 62,000 acres had burned. Overnight, the fast-moving fire killed 12 people living in Wildcat Canyon and Eucalyptus Hills, in the northern part of Lakesidemarker, who had little or no warning that the fire was approaching, and destroyed 28 homes on the Barona Indian Reservation. In only a few hours the Cedar Fire had pushed southwest over and had burned over at an average rate of per hour and crossed several large highways including I-15. By noon on October 26 the fire was burning hundreds of homes in the Scripps Ranch community of San Diegomarker, and was threatening many others.

The fire forced the evacuation of the main air traffic control facility for San Diego and Los Angelesmarker, shutting down all commercial air traffic in the area and disrupting air traffic across the United Statesmarker. On October 26, the fire forged into Alpinemarker, Harbison Canyonmarker and Crestmarker burning hundreds more homes in areas that had been devastated by the Laguna Fire 33 years earlier. By October 28, the strong easterly Santa Ana winds died down and the fire turned east consuming another . The entire community of Cuyamacamarker and most of nearby Cuyamaca Rancho State Parkmarker and many homes in the town of Julian were destroyed. On October 29 a fire engine crew who were attempting to defend a house in the Riverwood Estates near Santa Ysabelmarker became entrapped and overrun by the fire. One firefighter was killed and three others were injured, one severely.Full containment was achieved on November 3 and the fire completely controlled on December 5.

Aftermath

In the wake of the 2003 firestorm, including the Cedar Fire, California Governor [Arnold Schwarzenegger] declared a state of emergency and activated the National Guard to assist in the disaster relief process, and President George W. Bush declared Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties major disaster areas. San Diego's Qualcomm Stadiummarker was used as an evacuation site, forcing the NFL Monday Night Football game on October 27 between the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins to be moved to Sun Devil Stadiummarker in Tempe, Arizonamarker.

Investigation

The Cedar Fire was started by Sergio Martinez of West Covinamarker, California, who claimed he was hunting in the area and had become lost. At first he claimed the fire was started accidentally by a gunshot but later said he started the fire to signal rescuers. Martinez was charged on October 7, 2004 in federal court with setting the fire and lying about it. On March 10, 2005, Martinez pleaded guilty to deliberately setting fire to timber in the plea bargain under which the charge of lying to a federal officer was dropped. He faced up to five years in prison, but was instead sentenced to six months in minimum-security confinement, which allowed him to leave for work and other commitments, 960 hours of community service, and five years' probation. He was also ordered to pay $9,000 in restitution.

Response criticism

There were a number of controversies associated with the Cedar Fire, resulting in investigations lasting several years. A report, 2003 San Diego County Fire Siege Fire Safety Review prepared in the wake of the fire and presented to the Governor's Blue Ribbon Fire Commission, criticized the overall response. The report stated that though the fire conditions and severity should have been expected, the responsible agencies were not properly prepared when the fire broke out, and radio communications problems exacerbated the problem. The report stated that "Disorganization, inconsistent or outdated policies among agencies that grounded aircraft or caused other problems, and planning or logistics in disarray also marked the preliminary stages of the difficult, dangerous firefighting."

The turning away of the Sheriff's helicopters by the Forest Service came under severe attack by the public, media and elected officials, believing that an opportunity to prevent the fire from becoming out of control had been lost. The State has an aviation assets "cutoff" policy which stated that "aircraft (planes or helicopters) may not be dispatched so as to arrive at an incident no later than 30 minutes before sunset". The pilot later claimed he could have made three water drops in the time he had before darkness. However, a study performed by the United States Forest Service concluded that even if the helicopter had been able to drop multiple loads of water with direct hits on the flames, the impact on the fire would have been minimal. Cutoff also prevented two air tankers and a helicopter stationed at Ramona Airportmarker from being dispatched to the fire, although the tankers likely could not have been used anyway as the pilots had just spent seven hours fighting another fire, and FAA regulations stipulated that they could not continue to fly.

A contributing factor to the initial lack of aviation resources to fight the fire was the state's "no divert" policy, which allows incident commanders to dedicate certain resources to a particular fire; the policy applied to both airborne aircraft as well as those on the ground awaiting dispatch. At the time that the Cedar Fire started, there were already 11 other fires burning in the region. Aviation resources in the area were currently being held on the ground under a "no divert" declaration, in order to be available for structures' protection on another fire. However, weather and visibility at the other fire was precluding their use, so the aircraft sat idle despite the fact that the conditions were acceptable for their use on the Cedar Fire.

Resources to relieve the initial attack crews did not appear on the fire scene until around 5:00 a.m. PDT on Monday 27 October, since they had to be dispatched from Northern California, which was depleted in its own right, and some were delayed on their way by other fires in the northern region.

Both the media and area elected officials were also critical of the lack of use of military aviation assets which were located nearby at Camp Pendletonmarker and Miramarmarker. The U.S. Marine Corps operates CH-46 Sea Knight and CH-53 Sea Stallion helicopters that can carry water-dropping buckets, but existing policies prohibited their use until all other civilian resources were used. Additionally, the military aircraft radios were not compatible with those used by most state and local fire agencies, and the military pilots had not received any training in fire-specific operations, making them a potential safety hazard both to firefighters on the ground and other aircraft over the fire.

Comparison to 2007 California wildfires

The Cedar Fire burned 2,820 buildings (including 2,232 homes) and killed 15 people including one firefighter before being contained on November 3, making it the largest fire in recorded California history up to that time.

The California wildfires of October 2007 were a series of wildfires that began burning across Southern California on October 20, 2007, forcing the evacuation of approximately 900,000 residents. At least 1,500 homes were destroyed and around of land burned from Santa Barbara Countymarker to the Mexican border. As of October 24, 16 active fires were burning in the region. 6 people had died and at least 70 others had been injured. As of November 9, all active fires had been contained. Compared to the Cedar Fire, rescources were more efficiently used and evacuations were organized much more quickly.

Fatalities

Fifteen people, including one firefighter, were killed by the fire. The fatalities were:
  • Galen Blacklidge — 50, Lakeside, teacher, artist – Died October 26, 2003 while trying to escape in her vehicle
  • Christy-Anne Seiler-Davis — 42, Alpine - Died October 26, 2003 while in her home on Vista Viejas Road in Alpine
  • Gary Edward Downs — 50, Lakeside, small-business owner – Died October 26, 2003 while trying to escape the flames on Wildcat Canyon Road
  • John Leonard Pack — 28, Lakeside - Died October 26, 2003 along with his wife Quynh trying to escape the fire on Wildcat Canyon Road
  • Quynh Yen Chau Pack — 28, Lakeside - Died October 26, 2003 along with her husband John trying to escape the fire on Wildcat Canyon Road
  • Mary Lynne Peace — 54, Lakeside, nurse - Died on October 26, 2003 along with her sister-in-law Robin Sloan near the Barona Indian Reservation
  • Steven Rucker — 38, Novato, firefighter, died October 29, 2003 in Julian on firefighting operations
  • Stephen Shacklett — 54, Lakeside, construction superintendent - Died October 26, 2003 while trying to escape the fire in his motorhome on Muth Valley road
  • James Shohara — 63, Lakeside, correctional officer - Died October 26, 2003 along with his wife and son while trying to escape near San Vicente Reservoir, Lakeside
  • Solange Shohara — 43, Lakeside, correctional officer - Died October 26, 2003 along with her husband and stepson while trying to escape near San Vicente Reservoir, Lakeside
  • Randy Shohara — 32, Lakeside - Died October 26, 2003 with his stepmother and father trying to escape near San Vicente Reservoir, Lakeside
  • Robin Sloan — 45, Lakeside, Walmartmarker employee - Died October 26, 2003 attempting to escape the fire near the Barona Indian Reservation
  • Jennifer Sloan — 17, Lakeside, student - Died October 26, 2003 along with her mother Robin while attempting to escape the fire near the Barona Indian Reservation
  • Ralph Marshall Westley — 77, Lakeside, retired retail clerk, discovered October 27, 2003 at 1088 Barona Road.
  • Unknown found mid-December in the I-15/SR 52 area.


References

  1. Cedar Fire & Memorial, Lakeside Historical Society
  2. Cedar Fire-Final Update, State of California website. Note, some references, such as [1] report the area as , however this article uses the figure reported by the State of California.
  3. "The Story-One Year Later: An After Action Review", U.S. Forest Service
  4. "U.S. Forest Service, CDF defend actions", NC Times, November 8, 2003, retrieved August 30, 2007
  5. http://www.signonsandiego.com/news/fires/map/031106firemap.html
  6. http://www.sandiego.gov/fireandems/pdf/afteraction03.pdf
  7. "Cedar fire survivors either vow to rebuild or will never return", San Diego Union-Tribune, October 24 2004, retrieved August 30, 2007
  8. "California wildfires burn through 600,000 acres", CNN, October 29, 2003, retrieved August 30, 2007
  9. California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Review Report of Serious CDF Injuries, Illnesses, Accidents and Near-Miss Incidents: Engine Crew Entrapment, Fatality, and Burn Injuries October 29, 2003 Cedar Fire
  10. "Southern California declared disaster area", CNN, October 27 2003, retrieved August 30, 2007
  11. Fire crews battle to limit damage from raging wildfires - Sign on San Diego - Oct. 26, 2003 - Obtained August 31, 2007.
  12. Marshall, Scott and Gig Conaughton, "Hunter charged with starting Cedar fire", North County Times.com, October 6, 2004. Accessed April 30, 2007
  13. Figueroa, Teri. "Hunter gets probation, halfway house term for setting Cedar fire", North County Times.com, November 17, 2005. Accessed April 30, 2007
  14. 2003 San Diego County Fire Siege Fire Safety Review
  15. "Firestorm report critical of policies, logistics", NC Times, March 3, 2004, retrieved August 30, 2007
  16. Roger Hedgecock and the Cedar fire - The California Chaparral Institute - including a San Diego Union-Tribune article from April 6, 2006 and comments from the following day's San Diego AM Roger Hedgecock show - Obtained August 31, 2007.
  17. Cedar Fire & Memorial, Lakeside Historical Society
  18. Cedar Fire-Final Update, State of California website. Note, some references, such as [2] report the area as , however this article uses the figure reported by the State of California.
  19. List of those killed by the fire, from CBS News


External links

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