Cedar Fire

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Cedar Fire
Cedar Fire
A dozen simultaneous wildfires in October 2003; the Cedar Fire is the large one just to the right of the center of the picture
Location San Diego County
Coordinates 33°1′N 116°41′W / 33.017°N 116.683°W / 33.017; -116.683Coordinates: 33°1′N 116°41′W / 33.017°N 116.683°W / 33.017; -116.683
Date(s) October 25, 2003 (2003-10-25)
17:37 (PDT)
Burned area 280,278 acres (1,134.2 km2)
Ignition source Signal fire
Land use Mixed, residential and wildlands
Fatalities 15
Smoke from the fires drifts toward Arizona and Nevada after the wind shifted on October 29
View of the Cedar Fire from southbound Interstate 5 near Pacific Beach on the first morning of the fire
Drivers scramble up the embankment to escape from the Interstate 15 freeway as the Cedar Fire crosses the freeway

The Cedar Fire was a wildfire which burned through a large area of San Diego County, in Southern California in October 2003. The Cedar Fire was one of 15 wildfires throughout Southern California that month, which became known as the "2003 Firestorm" and the "Fire Siege of 2003."[1] It was the largest wildfire in California history, with the possible exception of the Santiago Canyon Fire of 1889.


Driven by Santa Ana Winds, the Cedar Fire burned 280,278 acres (1,134.2 km2) 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.[2][3])

Fire chronology[edit]

The Cedar Fire began in the Cleveland National Forest and was reported at 5:37 p.m. PDT on October 25, 2003 south of Ramona in central San Diego County. 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.[4] 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 was dispatched to drop water on the fire. When the helicopter was only minutes away from the fire, a Forest Service fire chief cancelled the water drop because policy cut-off aerial firefighting 30 minutes before sunset.[4]

Between the time the fire started and midnight the predicted strong easterly (Santa Ana) winds surfaced and the fire burned approximately 5,319 acres.[5] By 3:00 AM, 62,000 acres (250 km2) had burned.[6] Overnight, the fast-moving fire killed 12 people living in Wildcat Canyon and Muth Valley in the northern part of Lakeside, who had little or no warning that the fire was approaching. The fire destroyed 39 homes on the Barona Indian Reservation.[7] In only a few hours, the Cedar Fire pushed southwest over 30 miles (48.3 km) and burned over 100,000 acres (400 km2) at an average rate of 5,000 acres (20 km2) per hour; it 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 Diego, and was threatening many others.

On October 26, the fire forged into Alpine, Harbison Canyon and Crest, 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 114,000 acres (460 km2). The entire community of Cuyamaca, most of nearby Cuyamaca Rancho State Park, and more than 500 homes surrounding the town of Julian were destroyed.[8]

On October 29, a fire company who were attempting to defend a house in the Riverwood Estates near Santa Ysabel became entrapped and overrun by the fire. One firefighter died. Another firefighter sustained severe injuries, and two firefighters were hurt.[9]

The fire forced the evacuation of the main air traffic control facility for arriving and departing aircraft in the San Diego and Los Angeles areas, shutting down all commercial and general aviation in the region and disrupting air traffic across the United States.

Firefighters achieved full containment on November 3 and complete control on December 5.[2]


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. President George W. Bush declared Los Angeles, San Bernardino, San Diego and Ventura counties major disaster areas.[10]

San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium was used as an evacuation site, forcing the NFL to move the Monday Night Football game on October 27 between the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins to Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Arizona.[11]

Response criticism[edit]

Outdated policies[edit]

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[12] 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."[13]

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.[citation needed]

Forest Service issues[edit]

The turning away of the Sheriff's helicopters by the Forest Service in the fire's early stages came under severe criticism by the public, media and elected officials, believing that an opportunity to prevent the fire from becoming out of control had been lost. The federal government 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".[4][14][12][15] The pilot later claimed he could have made multiple water drops in the time he had before darkness.[4] 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.[4]

Cutoff also prevented two air tankers and a helicopter stationed at Ramona Airport 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.[16]

California Department of Forestry issues[edit]

A contributing factor to the initial lack of aviation resources to fight the fire was the California Department of Forestry "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.[12]

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 Pendleton and Miramar. 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.[12]


Fifteen people, including one firefighter, were killed by the fire. The fatalities were:[17]

  • Galen Blacklidge — 50, of Lakeside, teacher, artist – Died October 26, 2003 while trying to escape in her vehicle on Strange Way in Wildcat Canyon.
  • Christy-Anne Seiler-Davis — 42, Alpine - Died October 26, 2003 at 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 Strange Way in Wildcat Canyon.
  • John Leonard Pack — 28, Lakeside - Died October 26, 2003 along with his wife Quynh trying to escape the fire on Strange Way in Wildcat Canyon.
  • Quynh Yen Chau Pack — 28, Lakeside - Died October 26, 2003 along with her husband John trying to escape the fire on Strange Way in Wildcat Canyon.
  • Mary Lynne Peace — 54, Lakeside, nurse - Died on October 26, 2003 along with her sister-in-law Robin Sloan on Strange Way in Wildcat Canyon.
  • Steven Rucker — 38, Novato, firefighter, died October 29, 2003 while attempting to save a home near Julian.
  • 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 — 58, Lakeside, correctional officer - Died October 26, 2003 along with her husband and son while trying to escape near San Vicente Reservoir, Lakeside.
  • Randy Shohara — 32, Lakeside - Died October 26, 2003 with his mother and father trying to escape near San Vicente Reservoir, Lakeside.
  • Robin Sloan — 45, Lakeside, retail store employee - Died October 26, 2003 attempting to escape the fire on Strange Way in Wildcat Canyon.
  • Jennifer Sloan — 17, Lakeside, student - Died October 26, 2003 along with her mother Robin while attempting to escape the fire on Strange Way in Wildcat Canyon.
  • Ralph Marshall Westley — 77, Lakeside, retired retail clerk, discovered October 27, 2003 at the Sloans' property on Strange Way in Wildcat Canyon
  • Unidentified victim found in mid-December in the southern part of MCAS Miramar near the interchange of the Escondido Freeway and Mount Soledad Freeway (32°50′N 117°07′W / 32.833°N 117.117°W / 32.833; -117.117).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Story-One Year Later: An After Action Review", U.S. Forest Service
  2. ^ a b Cedar Fire & Memorial, Lakeside Historical Society
  3. ^ Cedar Fire-Final Update, State of California website. (Note: some references, such as [1] report the area as 273,246 acres (1,105.8 km2); this article uses the figure reported by the State of California.
  4. ^ a b c d e U.S. Forest Service, CDF defend actions, NC Times, November 8, 2003, archived from the original on 2007-10-31, retrieved August 30, 2007 
  5. ^ Cedar Fire map, San Diego Union-Tribune, archived from the original on 2007-10-26 
  6. ^ City of San Diego Fire-Rescue Department report 
  7. ^ Cedar fire survivors either vow to rebuild or will never return, San Diego Union-Tribune, October 24, 2004, archived from the original on 2004-11-19, retrieved August 30, 2007 
  8. ^ California wildfires burn through 600,000 acres, CNN, October 29, 2003, archived from the original on 2003-10-30, 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 piehkl - Sign on San Diego - Oct. 26, 2003 - Obtained August 31, 2007.
  12. ^ a b c d 2003 San Diego County Fire Siege Fire Safety Review
  13. ^ "Firestorm report critical of policies, logistics", NC Times, March 3, 2004, retrieved August 30, 2007
  14. ^ Marshall, Scott and Gig Conaughton, "Hunter charged with starting Cedar fire", North County Times.com, October 6, 2004. Accessed April 30, 2007
  15. ^ "Interagency Standards for Fire and Aviation Operations 2007, Chapter 17" (PDF). National Interagency Fire Center. 2007. p. 10. Archived from the original on 2007-09-28. Retrieved 2007-08-31. 
  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. ^ List of those killed by the fire, from CBS News

External links[edit]


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