San Diegans reflect 10 years after devastating wildfires

Cedar Fire started Oct. 25, 2003

SAN DIEGO - The San Diego region is better equipped to fight a major wildfire today than it was 10 years ago, when the Cedar Fire broke out and rampaged across the county, government and fire officials said Friday.

The blaze killed 15 people, scorched more than 273,000 acres and destroyed more than 2,200 homes before it was extinguished weeks later -- becoming the most destructive in state history.

"What you've seen over the last 10 years is that the city and the county have made substantial investments to make sure that we do have the equipment, that we have the air fighting capabilities and other needs ready ... to go," Interim San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria told a local media outlet.

Gloria took part in a news conference in Scripps Ranch, where some neighborhoods were devastated by flames. Area fire agencies showed off their firefighting helicopters at the event.

The blaze started on a blistering hot fall day between Ramona and Julian when a lost hunter started a signal fire.

Deputy Dave Weldon had a bird's eye view in the San Diego County Sheriff Department's F Model chopper.

"Out of the flames I saw coyotes, I saw a fox, I saw a deer, I saw cattle, I saw horses burned, limping crawling," Weldon described.

He and his partner were the very first to the fire line. They were responding to a call of a lost hunter, who would end up being the one who started the explosive fire. Weldon and his partner airlifted him to safety.

The fire consumed about 10 acres by sundown and remained relatively small well into the night. But strong Santa Ana winds sprung up after midnight, sweeping flames into Wildcat Canyon -- between Lakeside and Ramona.

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"All the fatalities were the areas where we couldn't get in low enough for people to hear our loudspeaker," Weldon said.

Most of the deaths occurred in and around the canyon area, many as the victims attempted to escape. Survivors later told of waking up to flames already on their properties.

Weldon said he could not see through the thick smoke, and the winds were so powerful their helmets were hitting in the cockpit. They tried it all; they ditched the chopper, and went door-to-door with police and firefighters because there was no other way at the time.

Another finger of the fire raced into Scripps Ranch, where flames fed by combustible eucalyptus trees ravaged several neighborhoods. The westward march of flames went about halfway down the length of the runway at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar before they were stopped.

When the Santa Ana winds died down -- replaced by a sea breeze -- the flames roared east, devastating small mountain communities near Julian and Lake Cuyamaca and killing firefighter Steven Rucker, of the Novato Fire Department north of San Francisco. Rucker was one of hundreds of fire personnel from throughout the state dispatched to battle the Cedar Fire.

The East County mountains bear scars from the fire to this day, from denuded hillsides to huge stands of gray, broken trees standing on slopes near Lake Cuyamaca.

As bad as the Cedar Fire was, firefighters also had to deal with destructive blazes around the same time in Valley Center, east of Chula Vista and Camp Pendleton.

Another Santa Ana-driven firestorm broke out four years later when an electrical line fell. The blaze, now known as the Witch Creek Fire, then barreled into Rancho Bernardo, where hundreds of homes were destroyed. Several other wildfires broke in the area that fall.

Local leaders like County Supervisor Greg Cox and Gloria said Friday they have beefed up the arsenal. The San Diego Fire and Rescue Department replaced their entire fleet and more than tripled the reserve engines.

The county has jumped from zero to four helicopters dedicated to firefighting -- two for the city and two for the county.

Weldon now flies one of two bulked up Hueys, outfitted for water drops and transporting crews.

"Reaching the public with critical emergency information was a real challenge," Cox said.
County officials now are able to communicate better between agencies and with the public through the Reverse 911 system.

For the Cedar Fire anniversary, no Santa Ana winds are predicted by the National Weather Service despite warmer temperatures expected heading into the weekend.

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