|Location||San Diego County|
|Date||October 25, 2003
|Burned area||280,278 acres (1,134.2 km2)|
|Ignition source||Signal fire|
|Land use||Mixed, residential and wildlands|
The Cedar Fire was a caused by a lost hunter named Sergio Martinez. He lit a fire, which then burned out-of-control 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."
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, and the deadliest single wildfire event in the U.S. since the 1991 Oakland firestorm.
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. 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.
Between the time the fire started and midnight the predicted strong easterly (Santa Ana) winds surfaced and the fire burned 5,319 acres. By 3:00 AM, 62,000 acres (250 km2) had burned. Overnight, the fast-moving fire killed 12 people living in Wildcat Canyon and Eucalyptus Hills, in the northern part of Lakeside, who had little or no warning that the fire was approaching. The fire destroyed 28 homes on the Barona Indian Reservation. In only a few hours, the Cedar Fire had pushed southwest over 30 miles (48.3 km) and had burned over 100,000 acres (400 km2) at an average rate of 5,000 acres (20 km2) 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 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 and most of nearby Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and many homes in the town of Julian were destroyed. 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.
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.
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 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.
The Cedar Fire was started by Sergio Martinez of West Covina, California a "novice hunter" who claimed in court that he was hunting in the area and had become lost. At first he lied to investigators stating that the fire was started accidentally by a gunshot but later recanted and admitted he started the fire to signal rescuers intentionally. In court Martinez gave an account of his being lost earlier that day from his hunting partner and not "calling out" for "fear of scaring away deer". After gathering sticks and brush together and ignoring the fast moving hot dry Santa Ana winds arising from the east, had Martinez lit the brush and quickly lost containment.
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. Sergio Martinez faced up to five years in prison. Martinez was instead sentenced to only six months in minimum-security confinement, even though he was responsible for the deaths of 12 people and hundreds of millions of dollars in structural loss, the cancellation of school in the county, and the loss in business, which outraged San Diegans. His light sentence allowed him to leave for work and other commitments. He also was ordered to complete 960 hours of community service, and five years' probation. He was also ordered to pay only $9,000 in restitution.
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."
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
|This section's factual accuracy may be compromised due to out-of-date information. (January 2011)|
Sixteen people, including one firefighter, were killed by the fire. The fatalities were:
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