Notes from the Cedar Fire (November 12, 2003)

On Sunday November 26 at 9:30pm Anderson Valley’s type III (wildland) engine (7471) from our Boonville station departed for the fires in Southern California. We did not know which of the several active fires we would be assigned to or when we would be returning. I don’t think any of us in our wildest imagination anticipated the events of the next several days. This assignment was characterized by the unusual from beginning to end. It was the experience of a lifetime with heavy emphasis on the experience portion. In the course of our various assignments we were exposed to fire at a level that was totally new to all of us. In one conversation, we agreed that we saw more and bigger fire in two days than all of us had seen collectively in our entire careers. The old saying, “that which doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” was very applicable to our experience. We learned several basic truths about what does and doesn’t work in magnitude 10 fires and it is for this reason I wanted to relay our experiences to you. On at least one occasion we survived by dumb luck and the grace of God. I hope that hearing our successes and failures will give you a better chance for a successful outcome if you should ever find yourself in similar circumstances.

It is necessary to include a disclaimer here. The perspective in this narrative is limited to what I saw and was a part of. There were hundreds of engines and thousands of personnel deployed on this fire who all had their own personal experiences. I know many of them were far more intense than anything we were involved with. Even the other engines on our team, I’m sure, had highlights that I’m unaware of, but I can only relate what we (Engine 7471) saw and did. This is not the story of the Cedar Fire, it’s only the experiences of our engine company as seen through my eyes.

The first indication we had of the strain that the Southern California fires was placing on the system revealed itself in the formation of our team. So much equipment had already been sent south that it required a collective effort from Sonoma, Mendocino and Humboldt counties to form one more strike team. As it turned out, the engine from Humboldt was unable to come so we proceeded as a mixed task force that was one short of the customary five engines plus a leader. We had our type III, a type III from Rincon Valley, a type II (combination wildland/structure) from the Coast Guard training center at Two Rock in Sonoma County and a Type I (structure) from Fort Bragg. Our leader was a Fire Chief from Sonoma County. Our designator was XSN 2376C, indicating, falsely, that we were a strike team of type III wild land engines from Sonoma County. In fact, we were a mixed unit of type I’s, II’s and III’s and were one short of the required five units. Our engine crew was made up of engineer Joe Gowan, Matt Froneberger, a firefighter from Ukiah City, and myself as company officer. 

We assembled at Wesley on I-5 and proceed to the Cedar Incident about 90 miles northeast of San Diego. Our destination was a small “spike” camp near the northwest portion of the incident in the town of Ramona. By the time we arrived in camp (Monday at about 1:15pm) we had been driving over 14 hours and it had been well over 24 hours since most of us had been last seen a bed. We were more than a little surprised to be given an immediate fire line assignment after less than two hours in camp. Once again, the overwhelming nature of the fire caused a departure from normal operating procedures. We departed from camp and, after a brief delay at a forward staging area, proceeded to our first assignment, structure protection for a small subdivision on Deer Canyon Road. 

We arrived about 4pm and performed the customary reconnaissance of the area including triage and assessment of the structures. The fire was about a half mile distant and was moving slowly in our direction. Each engine selected a home to protect and did the usual preparations: positioning the engines facing out, removing potential fuel near the houses, developing water when available, assessing hazards etc. We spent an uneventful night and the next morning watched as a firing operation was commenced in the valley below us. The firing crew worked up the valley to Highway 78 and then continued along the highway to the northeast away from us. There was a brief moment of excitement when the fire spotted on our side of the line, but the escape was quickly and efficiently picked up by the firing crew. The firing operation was completed in our area and we were released from our assignment about 10am, Tuesday morning. 

We returned to the spike camp in Ramona expecting to begin a 24 hour R&R but were once again surprised to find we would be given about two hours to shower, change clothes and get lunches before going back out for another line assignment. Most of us had been able to get a few hours of sleep during the drive down and a little more when not on watch at the Deer Canyon assignment but we were definitely tired and hoping for a lightweight assignment that would allow us to get some rest. As it turned out that was not to be the case. We left Ramona at 12:30pm and proceeded to the town of Julian where a major staging area was located. We remained there for about an hour and departed for our next assignment, structure protection in Cuyamaca, at 2pm Tuesday afternoon. 

Cuyamaca is a small town built around a lake that is about two miles long and one mile wide. A high ring of peaks surrounds the community to the north, west and south. To the east, the valley runs out into an old dry lake bed which is the direction we entered from. As we approached the town from the east, we saw an incredible column of smoke rising from the high ridge to the west. It stretched from north to south as far as we could see, rising straight up as a solid wall that appeared to have no end. 

I am not at all a religious person but as we drove in and looked at the approaching fire and smoke column the only words that came to mind tended to be biblical in nature: holocaust, jihad, apocalyptic. In truth, I don’t have words in my vocabulary that would express the massive, raw, unrestrained force that was about to descend on the town. In my nearly 20 years in the fire service, I have never felt as threatened and afraid as I did that afternoon. In my heart I was saying to myself, “What are we doing driving into this?”

We were joining at least two other strike teams of engines and it still felt like we were so inconsequential and so pitifully weak in the face of the monster that was closing on us as to be completely ridiculous to even consider attempting to stand in its path. 

The fire was about a mile west of town and just beginning to descend from the peaks and ridge lines that were a thousand or so feet above us. Very little flame was visible. It appeared that the forest was just being vaporized into an immense, dense cloud of smoke. At this time, the fire was approaching 250,000 acres and it felt like all of the energy created in that destruction was focused into the leading edge on the ridge above us. 

After a brief delay at an intersection about mid-way into the town, we were sent forward to the west and then turned north on a road that bordered a large open field to the west and passed the Cuyamaca Fire Department to the east. We stopped a few hundred feet north of the fire station and were assigned to assist with a firing exercise. The intention was to burn out the field west of the road and create a safety zone and buffer that would prevent the main fire from running straight through the block of structures behind us. Our engine had the only drip torch available so I did the ignition under the supervision of a CDF fire captain. There was a slight breeze blowing from the north so we intended to start burning from the road west into the field about 400 feet and then turn south and continue back to the main road we had come in on creating a two or three acre black area. We intended to extinguish the perimeter fire with a mobile attack from a pick-up pumper provided by the Cuyamaca Department letting the fire run on the interior to produce our safe area and buffer. As we started burning it became apparent the small pumper that was using a one inch hose wasn’t able to deliver enough water to allow us to complete our assignment before the main fire hit us. We called up the Rincon engine to assist and the pick-up pumper backed out. As we neared the point where we were going to turn south, the wind shifted and increased in speed. The main fire had hit the valley floor and was starting to suck air into it which was creating a building wind out of the east. Our backfire began to run rapidly to the west towards the main fire. 

We discontinued burning and started running a straight mobile attack along what had become the head of our fire. Our concern was for several houses located west of us between our fire and the main fire. We couldn’t save them but we didn’t want them to be burned by our backfire so we continued south across the head of the backfire trying to cut it off before it got completely away from us. We made it about two-thirds of the way to road we were attempting to tie into when the houses west of us exploded into fire. The main fire was about 400 feet out and coming fast. We assembled our burn team and backed into the black as the main fire met the backfire. 

As the main fire hit, it died in front of us for lack of fuel. The large black area created by our burn effectively split the fire and it passed quickly by us to the south on the lakeside. To the north the fire also advanced around us but much more slowly. It was burning on a moderately steep hillside covered in pine timber and relatively heavily populated with homes. As the fire engulfed us at about 3pm, day turned into night and we had to use headlamps and flashlights. We began hearing radio traffic instructing the units positioned behind us further to the east to pull out. Our position that had seemed so threatened and tenuous now felt very secure. We had about three acres of cold black in front of us and the fire to the south burned by and stayed on the south side of the access road. The fire to the north was still well up the hill and although it was also passing by us moving to the east its progress down the hill to the south (toward us) was very slow. 

As the fire moved around us our team deployed a supply line down a small road running to the east past the fire station for about 600 feet to an old folks home that was a large split level wooden structure with several horses in corals around it. There were also a couple of homes 100 feet or so off this road to the north. Our local supervisor decided to burn out the north side of this road as the fire backed down the hill at us to save what we could. We started burning at the rear of the old folks home to the east and then continued up our northern flank. There were two houses in this area. We burned around one of them and then extinguished the fire there. The other home had heavy brush and timber all around it making it impossible to save. We held our firing operation just short of this home and waited until the main fire was almost on it before continuing. Once again the intension was to avoid, if possible, losing houses directly to fires we set. As the fire closed on us from the north we continued firing the north flank until we tied in with the road in front of the fire house adjacent to our first burn out. 

The fire subsided around us and we received instruction to pick up our gear and move to another assignment. It took about an hour to pick up the hose lay and re-stow it in the structure engines. We pulled out about 5pm and found all of the apparatus that had been deployed behind us was gone. On the way out of town we saw a house that was unburned with an attached storage building that was burning and about to spread to the house. We diverted and set up to extinguish the shed. When laying hose around the rear of the structure to protect the crew attacking the shed we found that the next house up the road was also virtually undamaged but with small fires burning on the front steps and on the back porch. We extended our hose lay and extinguished both fires when our strike team leader told us to pull out ASAP because a large tree was burning on our exit road and would trap us if it fell. We again picked up our hose and continued to our next assignment.

* * *

We pulled out of Cuyamaca a little after 5pm. It was totally dark, as I looked back into the giant horseshoe of mountains that surrounded the valley, what had been forest now looked for all the world like a huge city with all the lights on in hundreds of buildings. In reality, it was hundreds of acres of burned over forest and buildings with glowing embers and burning snags everywhere. 

It was the funeral pyre for the town of Cuyamaca. 

About 5:30pm we pulled into the intersection of Hwy 79 and S-1 also known as the Sunrise Highway. We had been driving to the east and overtaking the head of the fire as we went. By the time we reached this intersection we were back in relatively intense fire conditions. Most of the fuel had burned off but the wind had picked up as we drove east and was now blowing strongly from the west carrying a heavy load of embers with it as it blew through the intersection. We were again approaching the head of the fire, this time from the rear, and it was pulling the air from the west into the head. A water tender was available and we lined up to re-supply. Our engine was third in line and just as we finished the leader called and told us to follow him down the Sunrise Highway to the southeast. Our fourth engine (Rincon Valley) was left to finish re-supplying and was told to follow when he could.

Almost immediately we drove into heavy fire conditions. Most of the time we could avoid direct contact with fire by driving on the less involved side of the road, but in some places we had fire from both sides of the road that was touching the engine. The smoke was frequently so thick that we couldn’t see the engine in front of us and could only navigate by watching the fog line at the side of the road. I was extremely grateful for Joe’s presence on our crew about this time. We were definitely in a tenuous position. If the engine stalled or we ran off the road (which would have been easy to do, given the conditions) our survival would definitely have been in question. Joe’s years of experience as a professional driver, and particularly his experience with older vehicles was invaluable on a number of occasions. The fact that we returned without injury is in no small way a credit to Joe’s abilities. 

We continued through these conditions for about a mile and a half and then we broke out into unburned fuel. We had caught up with and then passed through the head of the fire. As we moved to the south pressing on to our assignment, a camp facility a few miles further out, we could see the glow of the fire off to the west, sometimes closer, sometimes more distant, but always there, just over the horizon. Just before 1800 we arrived at the turn off to the camp, a dead end road that descended into the facility approximately a half-mile from the main road. The team leader turned off and started down the road into the camp. The engine in front of us expressed reluctance at going down a dead end road with no idea what was awaiting us so the leader told us to wait at the intersection while he reconed the access. 

Within minutes of his departure, I looked to the west and saw the fire crest the hill about a quarter-mile from our position. It was moving through tall grass with what appeared to be fifty-foot flame lengths and was coming incredibly fast. I got out of the truck and conferred with the crew in the Coast Guard engine, suggesting that we set fire to the west side of the road to try to get some black between us and the fire before it hit. They strongly agreed with the proposed tactic and we moved the engines into the intersection and began firing the west side of the road and then a short stretch of the access road to try to improve the exit path for the team leader. By this time, the fire was almost on us and was obviously going to blow right over the road so we fired the east side of the road as well. While this was in progress, the leader returned and declared our mission to be impossible and led us off to the south in the direction of Mount Laguna, a small town about six or seven miles further down the road with a volunteer fire department. Just prior to departing the intersection, we received a call from the Rincon engine saying they had started after us down Sunrise Highway. but that the fire conditions were too severe to continue. Our team leader instructed them to return to the first intersection and attempt to hook up with another unit. We would not see them again until the following day. 

By this time as you can imagine, we were pretty spooked and very tired and hungry. Like an oasis in the desert we came across the Mount Laguna Volunteer Fire Department. They had been involved in some of the very first dispatches before things really blew up and had some initial success with catching at least one fire before it took off and joined what became the Cedar Incident. Their members had been on duty continuously throughout the battle and were in a state of exhaustion that made us look fresh by comparison. One of the members had a connection with a local restaurant and had procured 120 gourmet chicken dinners. They generously invited all comers to eat with them and we were very happy to take them up on that offer. They had two giant black dogs one of which was named Hooch who kept us company and offered to do the dishes. We spent about an hour and a half there listening to their stories and telling them ours. It was a brief but welcome break that refreshed us considerably. We refueled at a USFS facility just outside of town and continued on our way. 

The fire had completely cut us off to the north so we had to take a long circuitous route that took us south to within six miles of Mexico and east to within sixty miles of Arizona before we turned northwest on S2 and headed back toward Julian. We arrived at Julian staging shortly after midnight Wednesday morning certain that this time that we would be sent back to camp for a rest period. Once again we were disappointed to learn that we were going directly out to another line assignment. This time we would be staying close to Julian doing structure protection on a small subdivision on a ridge just west of town. 

We had become extremely careful about assessing our access and escape route on the way in. It was apparent this time that if we were again caught in front of the fire we would not be able to evacuate by the route we were entering on. There was thick pine timber and scrub against the sides of the narrow one lane road. No way would we be able to exit through active fire by this route. We continued a short distance up a modestly steep and overgrown road to the ridge road on which our six house subdivision lay. We were still two engines short (the Rincon engine had not yet rejoined us). We deployed one engine to each of three houses. We had also picked up a water tender from somewhere when we left Cuyamaca. The team leader took the most easterly of the homes up on a small knoll with very good clearance around it which was necessary because he was driving a utility rig with no water. Fort Bragg took the most westerly house also on a high point of the ridge. We took a middle house on the spine of the ridge in a slight saddle (the water tender stayed with us here) and the Coast Guard took a house on a little spur ridge to the south of the road on a small point. 

This house was still occupied by the owner who was also a water truck driver on the fire and intent on making a last ditch stand to save his home. He had his truck positioned in front of his house but unfortunately he had done little or nothing in the way of creating defensible space around his home. Young pine trees grew thickly all around it and were growing right into a wooden deck on the backside. Several much larger, totally dried out, dead adult pines were scattered around the house. The drive way was about one hundred and fifty feet long and lined with young cedar trees. To top it off, the house had a wood shake roof. 

After our crew had prepped our assigned structure by removing all burnable material and cutting a three foot scratch line around it which would allow us to burn out with out igniting the house, I went up the hill to the Fort Bragg crew to discuss our plan. The hill fell away in front of us to the south (where the fire was coming from) rather steeply. We had a ridge road in front of both of our structures and the wind was presently blowing very lightly out of the west. We decided that we would wait until the fire was close and clearly going to burn through us before first firing the ridge around the houses and then, in stages, starting with the Coast Guard engine to the east, fire the grassy slope in front of us. 

When I went down to meet with the Coast Guard to discuss the plan I was appalled at the conditions around their assigned house and asked the engine officer why he was there since the house was clearly not savable given the fire conditions we were seeing. I didn’t realize that the water truck driver who was in nomex was also the homeowner. He immediately identified himself and told me we had been assigned up there because he had personally gone down to the division supervisor in Julian and requested us. He went on to say that he realized we didn’t have much to work with but that he still felt there was a chance to save his home. We talked it over and the Coast Guard said they’d stay and give it a try. 

The plan called for them to fire first because they were on the downwind side and then we would work our way back up the ridge with the Fort Bragg crew firing last. We all finished our preparation and began sleeping in shifts at around 3am Wednesday. I took the first watch for our crew and observed the fire two ridges distant to the south. It had been burning pretty well when we first arrived but seemed to have laid down in the intervening period. It also appeared that the main thrust of the fire was to the northeast and, with some luck might be stopped or at least slowed by one of the two east-west roads between us and the fire. We were due to go off shift sometime between 8am and 10am in the morning, if it slowed enough, we would be gone before it reached us. The home owner/water truck driver told us about a back road out but when we reconed it, we found it passed over two chimneys (drainages that act as a funnel increasing the spread of fire up hill) and was too narrow and twisting for our big engines to use. If the fire came to us, we would have to stay where we were and depend on our burn plan to protect us. 

I went off watch at 5am and was relieved by Matt our firefighter from Ukiah FD. I told Matt what the fire had been doing and asked him to wake me if it kicked up again. I laid down in the truck and was instantly fast asleep. Matt woke me up ten minutes later and told me that the fire was up and moving toward us. I couldn’t believe it but when I went out and looked, the fire was on the ridge across the canyon from us and had already spotted about half way down the hill. Our last hope was that the road below would hold it, but given the recent accelerated fire behavior that didn’t seem likely. 

Our engine company had a much better view than the crews east and west of us so I called and alerted them to the fire’s advance. We decided to wait until the fire was well established on the hill below us before we started firing. A few minutes later we could clearly see the fire below us and, more alarmingly, there was significant fire on our ridge to the east and it appeared to be building fast. I told the Coast Guard about the fire that was now above and east of them. They said they were going to start firing. 

Our crew waited until we could see their fire and then started burning the back of the ridge behind our house. We had laid an inch and a half line to the rear of the house and intended to stop our fire there before it ran up the backside of the ridge where there was an unprotected house. We let the fire run out about ten feet and started trying to extinguish it but the wind had picked up significantly and carried the fire off, up the ridge behind us. We continued and burned out around the rest of the house. The Coast Guard called and said their firing wasn’t working well and they were going to evacuate to our position which they did. We finished firing everything between us and the road and were about to fire the downhill strip in front of us when I looked down at the water truck driver’s house. He had stayed behind and the grassy strip that ended at his house had not burned. If we lighted from our position it would burn down wind on him and hit him hard. I delayed lighting the strip and watched the other end where Ft. Bragg, unaware of the problem, had already ignited it from the west. As the fire burned down the strip from the west, it became clear that our position was secure. We had black all around and little threat remained. 

By this time I was extremely worried that our fire in the grassy strip was going to compromise the water truck driver/owner and possibly cut him off from potential escape. I asked the second water truck driver who was with us to come with me and also took our firefighter Matt, we headed down the road to the threatened structure. When we arrived Matt laid a line off our water truck down the driveway while I lighted the grass off on the west side of the drive. That took care of the threat from the fire in the strip and pretty much secured an exit path for us so we went on down to the house to make contact with the owner. We found him well below his house where he had deployed a long hose lay from his truck. The fire was rapidly running up the hill at us and burned over his hose lay. We retreated to a position near the lower corner of his house where our hose was and started flowing water on a small cottage below the main house in a vain attempt to keep the fire out of the main house. 

The fire had increased to an extent that our hose line was totally ineffective and then some of the large dead pines next to us started going off like explosives. I yelled to Matt and the owner telling them we had to get back to the safety zone right now. We turned and ran up the hill beside the house far enough up the driveway that we were in the safety zone created by burning off the grassy strip. I turned to say something to Matt, he was there but the owner wasn’t. I asked Matt where the owner was and he said he had no idea, he thought he’d come with us when we bailed out from the house. I left Matt and tried to return to the corner of the house but by this time the whole lower and rear portions of the house were fully involved and most of the surrounding trees were burning. I called a couple of times, got no response, and decided that wherever he was I wasn’t going to be able to help him and started back up the side of the house thinking he was dead. 

When I got to the top of the house I found him on the upper side. He had somehow made it around the back of the house and gotten above me. When I reached him he was starting back down where I had just come from. I grabbed him by the shoulders and told him it was over, the house was gone and that it wasn’t worth dying over. That seemed to sink in and we made our way back up to his truck and pulled it up to the top of the drive with the other water truck.

While we were working on the water truck owner’s house I had noticed that the unprotected house on the ridge above us somehow had survived the initial burn. The driveway into it was still burning too much to get an engine in but Matt and I were able to walk up the hill through the burn and get to the house. We were surprised to find that not only had the first house made it but a detached garage in back and a second home on the backside of the ridge had also survived. Both houses had minor fire involvement and a slow backing fire was approaching the lower house and a propane tank. 

Matt took the upper house and secured it by tearing off the burning portion of an attached enclosed porch. I used tools the homeowner had left out to cut a quick scratch line that isolated the lower house and propane tank from the encroaching fire. The steps leading down to the lower house were also on fire. There was no water available from the garden hoses so I checked the interior of the house and found two, gallon containers of drinking water which was sufficient to extinguish most of the fire on the steps. Matt and I then disassembled the burned portion and also extinguished some small fires burning under the house by throwing dirt on them. 

The smoke on the backside of the ridge was fairly thick and Matt began to suffer from the effects of smoke inhalation so we evacuated him to the ridge and had the leader come in and pick him up for a brief period of R&R. While we had been separated from our engine Joe held the fort at our original structure. As the main fire burned through a large brush pile near the truck ignited and several spot fires started in the adjacent area of low grass that we had previously wet down with the tender. The hot, dry wind from the fire had dried everything out and Joe had his hands full for a while saving the truck. 

After Matt had been temporarily relieved and our original structure was secured, Joe walked up the ridge to assist with the upper house. Joe discovered that even though there was no water at the spigot and no pressure there was still some water trapped in the hose. Joe used this small supply to mop up some small pockets of smoldering fire remaining around the steps. 

Back up at the Fort Bragg engine they had successfully weathered the initial burn through but were having trouble with some hot spots adjacent to their structure and even with assistance from the Coast Guard engine were about to run out of water. There was an above ground swimming pool at the house but it was not accessible to the engine to draft from. Our engine had a floto pump (the only one on the team) which we loaned to them. They set it up in the pool and succeeded in extinguishing the remaining hot spots as well as providing re-supply for one tender and two engines. Our engine had used less than one hundred fifty gallons of water during the operation. 

Our leader had successfully burned out around his structure (that was the building fire we had seen to the east above the water truck driver/owner’s house earlier). In the end we saved everything except the water truck drivers/owner’s house, which was more than a little ironic since he was the reason we were there in the first place. 

We discovered, as we were forming up to depart at about 8 o’clock, that a large tree had gone down across our access road. We couldn’t have gotten out during the fire in any case and would have found ourselves in a bad place if we had tried. We would have been forced to back all the apparatus uphill on a twisting mountain road in heavy smoke and fire conditions. Shortly after we discovered the tree, a dozer showed up and cleared it for us. We assembled the team and returned to Julian staging. The area we were in was about three miles as the crow flies southeast of Wynola where the burn-over occurred that killed Steve Rucker of Novato Fire Department. The fire that passed through our ridge hit Wynola about six hours later at about noon on Wednesday. 

Even though we had been on duty now for over sixty hours, when we rolled into Julian staging we anticipated the worst and were not disappointed. We were given about an hour to eat before going out on another assignment. During our rest break, I ran into a former Chief of our department, Jim Krussow, who was assigned to Julian with a strike team of prison engines doing structure protection. Jim was our Chief during the late 80s and is now working as the second officers in a prison system fire department.

After eating we were assigned to back up a firing operation which was designed to protect a portion of the town of Julian from the approaching fire. We were positioned in a large grassy field just east of the firing operation. We were there to suppress any spot fires in the area. There was a small pond that had been pretty much drained, the remainder of which, was being used by a copter for bucket drops. The water level was so low that the copter would pass out of sight as he descended into it for water. We heard CNN showed this operation as part of their repeating broadcast for most of the day. The firing operation was concluded in our area mid-morning and we were amazed to hear that we were finally being sent in for an R&R break. 

We spent Wednesday afternoon and evening back in the spike camp in Ramona. We thought we would have a full 24 hours off but we picked up another assignment mid-morning on Thursday the 30th. We were assigned to do mop up in the area of Santa Ysabel. The fire had passed through this area several days before but there were still lots of smokes and hotspots to pick-up. 

Mop-up isn’t usually high on the list of jobs I’d like to get, but given our experiences for the preceding two days, I was quite happy to be digging out stumps and packing water in a backpack up a steep hill. Due to a miscommunication, I was briefly presumed lost on the fire line. Our engine was returning for water and I jumped out to recover a Pulaski (firefighter’s hatchet) we had left behind while they made the trip down the hill and back for re-supply. As I jumped out I told them I’d get the Pulaski and then continue up the road looking for more hot spots. Apparently they didn’t hear me and returned to the location they had dropped me off and started a search. When I realized something was wrong because they hadn’t caught up with me, I walked back down the ridge and met them. I was somewhat surprised to find I was the subject of a search and rescue. (There’s a good lesson here on assuring communications are received and understood.) 

It rained later that evening which made the road we were using impassable so we bedded down for the remainder of the night and pulled out at about 9am Friday morning. 

Our spike camp had been closed down and we were now going into the Main Base Camp located on an airport near El Cajon about an hour and a half drive to the west. We got showers and hot meals and thanks to Matt and one of the guys from the Coast Guard engine we had semi-private quarters to sleep in at an air museum hanger. Matt and the Coast Guard guy met the guys who ran the museum and after talking to them for a while got an invitation to spend the night. 

We attended a memorial service at a local church for Steve Rucker that afternoon. During the night it rained several times and we were very grateful for the relatively warm, dry hanger with a carpeted floor. Our engines were parked on the flight line where there were way too many engines to count. We saw engines from all over California, Arizona and Colorado. I even met a Mexican firefighter who was part of a fourteen person hand crew from, where else, Mexico. While we were resting in camp we met several groups of kids in there Halloween costumes who were bringing us everything from candy to ice cream. One little girl of about four stopped by the engine and gave me a small star sticker for my hand. We had a taste for burgers that evening and went to an In & Out Burger. After we had ordered and tried to pay, they told us everything was free to firefighters.

We went through demobilization on Saturday morning at 10am, finished our paperwork, and cleared camp at about 11:30. On the way home cars would pull up beside us, honk, wave and give us a thumbs up. I guess that’s the Southern California version of a ticker tape parade. When we stopped in Gorman to eat, an elderly couple stopped Joe to ask about the fires. Joe talked to them for several minutes then went in to the Sizzler for a great steak dinner. When he tried to pay his bill they wouldn’t take his money, the elderly couple had paid for him. 

We rolled into Ukiah about 1am Sunday morning and dropped Matt off. We continued on the Boonville and went in-quarters at about 2am.

That’s pretty much the story of our experiences with Task Force 2376 Charlie on the Cedar Fire. I hope this will give you a little something to go on should you find yourself in similar circumstances. I think it would be good to keep in mind that the Cedar incident was the largest fire in the history of California, at least since we gringos have had it. It was not in any way a typical incident. It strained the considerable resources of the State of California to the breaking point and beyond. Usual and customary procedures and rules sometimes went out the window, not by design, but because way too much was happening in way too many places and way too fast. The Incident Command System was, in some cases unable to grow fast enough to meet requirements on the fire line. 

The incident was also managed by multiple agencies under a unified command which also complicated things. To my mind there just wasn’t a good answer to these problems.

Large disasters are by their nature overwhelming events that resist our best efforts to control them. Eventually you get to the backside of the thermal curve, the fires die down, the winds abate, the waters recede. The trick is to just get through it, event by event, protect yourselves and your equipment, and, when you get the chance, make things better one small piece at a time.

2 Responses to "Notes from the Cedar Fire (November 12, 2003)"

  1. Betsy Cawn   March 25, 2020 at 8:20 am

    Mr. Wilson, this is an incredibly vivid depiction of the real-time encounter with treacherous conditions, strained resources, collaborative on-the-spot decision making, discoveries and “lessons learned.”

    (I’d not visited all of the locations you covered, but spent some time in that neck of the woods in the late 90s, including Julian — even then I was relieved to get out of the area and back to open land, which turned out not to be much protection either as the events unfolded. The shock of seeing the fire forcing itself across Highway 15 and people abandoning their vehicles in the chaos was enough to inform us that a mere four-lane highway, like 101 in Santa Rosa, was not going to stop a hurricane of flames. To be sure, we’re all by this time suffering no illusions about the dexterity and wits it takes to meet these monsters head on.)

    That particular fire was the first in the now-“normal” series of California’s overwhelming fire catastrophes, for which our tiny but stalwart firefighter companies are so well-versed in the “adapt, innovate, and overcome” model of operations here in Northern California.

    Last year we were fortunate to have an on-board “strike team” backing up our Lake County Fire Protection District, composed of various units and personnel from a number of Mendocino County districts, one of which was the Anderson Valley FPD. We would all be truly lost without every one of you.

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  2. Betsy Cawn   March 25, 2020 at 9:04 am

    A video compilation of the Northshore Fire Protection District’s extraordinary efforts during the early days of the 2018 Ranch Fire — before already limited state resources could come to our aid — protecting our tiny human enclaves around Blue Lakes, northern Scotts Valley, and Upper Lake. Thanks to Pitney Productions and our NSFPD Support Team!

    https://youtu.be/Xsxs46clyOw

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