The Cedar Fire was the largest wildfire in the history of California and one of 15 fires that started in late October 2003 and were fanned by Santa Ana Winds in Southern California burning a total of 721,791 acres (2,921 km²), 3,640 homes and killing 24.
The Cedar Fire was reported at 5:37 pm on October 25 south of Ramona in central San Diego County. Overnight it killed 13 people living north of Lakeside who had little or no warning that the fire was approaching. In only 16.5 hours the Cedar Fire had pushed southwest over 30 miles and had burned over 100,000 acres (405 km²) at 5,000 acres (20 km²) per hour. By this time the fire was burning hundreds of homes in the Scripps Ranch community of San Diego, was threatening homes near the coast and had forced the evacuation of the main air traffic control facility for San Diego and Los Angeles shutting down all commercial air traffic in the area and disrupting air traffic across the United States. The next evening the fire forged into Alpine, Harbison Canyon and Crest burning hundreds more homes in areas that had been devistated by the 175,425 acre (710 km²) Laguna Fire 33 years earlier. By October 27, the Cedar Fire had lost most of its energy as the Santa Ana winds died down. However when the typical westerly winds of the area returned the fire turned east with them consuming another 114,000 acres (461 km²).
In the end, the Cedar Fire had burned 280,278 acres (1,134 km²), 2,820 buildings, including 2,232 homes and had killed 14 people including one firefighter.
The Cedar Fire was started by Sergio Martinez of West Covina, 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 with arson and manslaughter in connection with the fire on October 7, 2004.
There were many controversies associated with the Cedar Fire and several investigations are under way. The Sheriff's office claims that the first 911 call about the fire came in at 5:37 pm but several citizens claim to have called as much as an hour earlier. The Sheriff's office will not release the 911 call records. A firefighting helicopter, enroute to the burgeoning fire and only minutes away, was recalled by dispatchers because of approaching darkness even though it was 1/2 hour before sunset. The pilot later claimed he could have made three water drops in the time he had before darkness. The crews of fire retardant-dropping aircraft, stationed within sight of the fire at Ramona Airport, filled their tanks when they spotted the fire but were not dispatched. The crews returned at dawn on the 26th, expecting to be dispatched to the fire, but were not dispatched until 9:00 am. Although firefighters were almost universally praised some citizens reported firefighters making no effort to prevent houses from catching fire. Many houses were saved by citizens who refused to evacuate as the fire approached. A group of citizens is credited with saving hundreds of homes in the community of Eucalyptus Hills, near Santee, by cutting a firebreak and fighting flames with a privately-owned water truck through the night without a firefighter in sight. At one point a helicopter-born Sheriff's Deputy threatened the group with citations and arrest if they did not cease their efforts and evacuate. They left only after firefighters arrived in the morning after the brunt of the fire had passed by.
In the aftermath of the fire the curfew for firefighting aircraft was extended from 1/2 hour before sunset to 1/2 hour after sunset and pilots have been given more discretion in deciding whether to attack a fire or not.
Why was the Cedar Fire so bad?
Would the results have been different if mistakes had not been made in fighting the fire? We will never know, but there is good reason to believe that the Cedar Fire would have been cataclysmic anyway. The Cedar Fire came after nearly a decade of (relative) drought in southern California. Fuel was dense on the ground, with dried out chaparral available in large quantities in the inland valleys and foothills. Chaparral is fire-adapted, part of what fire ecologists call "fire climax" ecosystems. That is, the ground fuel does not naturally rot or otherwise disappear; it is not depleted until a wildfire takes place and the cycle can start again. Given how long it had been since the last fire of consequence, it was inevitable there would be a significant wildfire in southern California.
But why did the Cedar Fire happen when it did? All fires require a fire triangle whose three vertices are fuel, heat, and oxygen. In San Diego County in October of 2003 fuel was in abundance, and strong Santa Ana conditions had driven daytime temperatures above 90F in the days leading up to the fire. In addition, on the night of October 26th the Santa Ana winds meant humidity was down to single-digits, and 40 mi/h westerlies were blowing from the desert toward the coast. The result was mass ignition, a rapidly-moving fire, and extreme fire behavior, including large fire whirls. With all elements of the fire triangle present and at high levels, the Cedar Fire rapidly became a record firestorm.
Other fires in Southern California
Two other massive wildfires also broke out in Ventura and San Bernadino counties almost right at the same time as the Cedar Fire.
- Cedar Fire Final Update http://www.fire.ca.gov/cdf/incidents/Cedar%20Fire_120/incident_info.html
- Firestorm 2003 http://www.sddt.com/News/article.cfm?SourceCode=20031030t1 (map of San Diego County ablaze)