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Cal Fire San Diego chief reflects on lessons learned from Cedar Fire 20 years ago

Cedar fire from Oct. 25, 2003
Posted at 5:57 PM, Oct 25, 2023

SAN DIEGO (KGTV) — Twenty years ago, a hunter who became lost in the Cleveland National Forest 25 miles east of San Diego ignited a wildland fire that, within hours, became a perfect storm of mass destruction on a deadly path through the county.

The Cedar Fire began the evening of Oct. 25, 2003, and was initially reported to be 20 acres. By 3 a.m., the fire had grown to 62,000 acres, and by dawn the morning of Oct. 26, Santa Ana winds pushed flames at a rate of 3,600 acres an hour.

Residents were startled out of their sleep and raced to get out ahead of the inferno.

The raging winds brought an explosive effect to the area.

Firefighters were up against the combination of wind, terrain and heat, creating a cyclone of fire moving south and west through Crest, Julian and Lakeside while wiping out whole neighborhoods in Scripps Ranch and Tierrasanta.

Over the next 72 hours, San Diego would be shaken to its core.

People fled their homes, and wildlife ran toward unburned hills in a fight for survival.

By the time containment was declared the morning of Oct. 28, 15 people were killed, more than 2,800 buildings were destroyed and more than 280,000 acres were scorched.

"When you're in these massive fires, you realize there's nothing you're going to do to control this... You're at the whim of mother nature," says Tony Mecham, a unit chief for Cal Fire and San Diego County Fire.

Mecham has witnessed mother nature's power firsthand; he's watched as an entire house imploded from the pressure of the weather currents. He says it's a reminder of how small we are in comparison.

"Then you focus back and not get caught up in the overwhelming chaos," Mecham says.

The chief says the feeling of watching people in these moments of sheer panic will never leave him, but he's also in awe of the dedication of all firefighters who uphold their oath to protect their communities.

"You just see these folks that have just give their all. I mean, we know they're just wasted, they're physically exhausted," he says.

Mecham reflected on the lessons learned after the devastating Cedar Fire two decades ago.

"We didn't have the ability to communicate as well. We did not regionally work together. We still had silos and boundaries up around agencies," he says.

Although Mecham is blunt about what is possible in the future, he's confident the state and county have put the resources, tools, air power and man power together to better tackle another perfect storm.

"Not only can it happen again — it's going to happen again," Mecham says.

New technology connected to their network of cameras across San Diego County gives firefighters critical minutes to respond more quickly.

"That camera network now is incorporating artificial intelligence, where even before we get a 911 caller, our dispatchers recognize smoke on the camera... That technology's alerting us," Mecham says.

While we've all come so far since 2003, residents being more mindful of keeping a defensible space around their homes and fire fighting capabilities better prepared and coordinated, Chief Mecham says as we look back, we should all take a moment to remember the lives lost in the hell of the Cedar Fire: 14 civilians and one firefighter.

On top of the lives lost and homes and businesses burned to the ground, the economic loss to San Diego County from the Cedar Fire has been estimated at $204 million.