Night of Fire
At dawn, Kelly Zombro prayed.
He was out of men, out of equipment, out of hope.
“Please, God, this fire needs to go out,” Zombro pleaded as embers flew and homes burned. The battalion chief had never seen a fire grow so big so fast, racing overnight from a forest canyon to neighborhoods where people slept.
“My fear was that we wouldn’t get to the homes on time and they’d wake up and there’d be flames at the window,” Zombro said.
As the sun rose on the Cedar fire, his dread turned to grief.
Twelve people died without warning in the early hours of Oct. 26 — burned in their cars, on foot and in their homes. A nurse died curled up in a bathtub with her Chihuahua. A teenager perished, refusing to flee until her mother returned home.
So many people dying in a wildfire is a rare tragedy in America’s modern firefighting era.
But San Diego County was outmatched from the start.
It has far fewer firefighters than other metropolitan areas, and no county fire department. Sheriff’s deputies and firefighters rely on a second-rate radio system. They lack evacuation plans for most neighborhoods at risk. And unlike other counties, San Diego firefighters do not scout fires from the air at night.
The Cedar fire took advantage with extraordinary luck and timing.
If it hadn’t started at dusk, if the winds hadn’t blown so hard, if it had not been among the last in a string of wildfires burning in Southern California, it might have turned out differently.
Overwhelmed by circumstances and hobbled by past decisions, San Diego firefighters could afford few mistakes.
But on the first night of the Cedar fire, they did not know where it was, where it was going, or how it would act — basic rules of wild land firefighting.
John Gibbins / San Diego Union-Tribune
A wall of flames descends on Scripps Ranch early on Oct. 26. Thousands of residents fled in cars and on foot with only 20 minutes before the first homes burned.
Over and over, fire commanders badly underestimated the blaze.
They turned down an early request for 25 more fire engines, waiting two hours before realizing the fire was about to burn homes.
They pondered evacuations even as residents were already being overtaken by flames.
They moved firefighters and equipment away from communities that were soon in the fire’s path.
Sheriff’s commanders twice woke the man in charge of the county’s emergency broadcast system, but never told him to activate radio and TV warnings.
“A lot of people guessed wrong that night,” said Carlton Joseph, division chief for the U.S. Forest Service.
In the end, the fire grew so fierce that more firefighters and better coordination might not have mattered.
The brush fire that began early on the evening of Oct. 25 mushroomed into the largest blaze in California history, burning 280,000 acres and destroying more than 2,200 homes over 11 days. More than two dozen people suffered serious burns, most in the fire’s first hours. By week’s end, 14 died, including a firefighter from Northern California.
Like a historic 1956 blaze that also began in the Cleveland National Forest and led to the modern rules of firefighting, the Cedar fire will long be studied.
Here is what happened during the first 16 hours of a fire that behaved like no other, told by those who risked their lives trying to fight it.
5:30 p.m., Saturday: Racing the Clock
Ron Serabia saw black smoke rising from the forest and knew there was no time to waste.
It was lucky that Serabia was nearby. About to retire after 34 years with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, he was spending Saturday with his wife, peeking into the windows of new tract houses near the forest.
It was almost sunset and Serabia knew the Ramona Air Attack Base would soon ground its firefighting planes for the night.
At 5:33 p.m. he dialed 911 from his cellular phone and was put on hold.
“I was on that line for three minutes,” Serabia said. He gave up on 911 and dialed the Monte Vista Command Center direct. The call went through at 5:39 p.m., the first report of the Cedar fire.
Serabia knew the forest’s rough hillsides well and told dispatchers it was going to be difficult to reach the fire by land. Aircraft might put it out, he said. Monte Vista dispatchers called the air attack base, less than 10 miles west of Cedar Creek, where the fire started.
It was 5:42 p.m. The deadline for launching aircraft had passed at 5:36 p.m. The cutoff, set for safety reasons, is always half an hour before sundown.
“We’ve lost tanker pilots at dusk. We’ve lost helicopter pilots. If you left it completely subjective to the pilots to say, ‘I think I can fly,’ they’d never slow down until they crash and die,” said Hal Mortier, a division chief with the U.S. Forest Service who helped make key decisions during the Cedar fire.
There was no discussion of bending the rules that night.
The base had loaned aircraft to fight other fires but still had two Korean War-era planes capable of dropping 1,200 gallons of flame retardant. A borrowed helicopter that could carry 350 gallons had just landed, its rotors still turning.
“If it had been five minutes sooner,” said base manager Shari Lee, “we would have put a helicopter and two planes in the air.”
5:50 p.m.: The Lost Hunter
The only authorities flying near the forest were two San Diego sheriff’s search-and-rescue pilots looking for a lost hunter. They followed rising smoke to a field of flames about the size of a strip mall parking lot. A short distance away, a man waved frantically from atop a pile of rocks.
At 5:51 p.m. Deputies Rocky Laws and Dave Weldon landed their helicopter, and Laws fought through towering brush for 10 minutes before reaching Sergio Martinez. The heavyset, novice deer hunter had been lost for more than seven hours and was too weak from thirst to walk on his own. Weldon left the helicopter to help.
Don Bartletti / LAT
Deputies Dave Weldon, left, and Rocky Laws were on their way to search for a lost hunter in the Cleveland National Forest when they first got word of the fire. The only ones flying that night, they stayed up in the air, battling smoke and high winds.
Martinez, 33, stared at the flames, apologizing over and over.
Laws asked him how he started the fire, and Martinez fell silent. Was it matches or a lighter? No answer.
Laws and Weldon told him the fire was going to get very large.
“I’m sorry about that,” Martinez responded, according to the deputies’ report. “I thought I was going to die out there.”
It was hot and dry. Fire conditions had been dire all season in the 460,000-acre Cleveland National Forest.
San Diego County fire officials had been on heightened alert all week. The county’s 65 fire departments had shipped out nearly a fifth of their 361 engines to work in San Bernardino and Camp Pendleton, where fires had been burning for days.
As a precaution, San Diego officials had decided not to lend out any more firefighters or equipment. Even so, they said later that they were not particularly alarmed. The county has about 700 wild-land fires each year; nearly all of them are extinguished before reaching 10 acres.
7:30 p.m.: Fire Out of Reach
Standing in the dark at a dirt road intersection in the forest, Carlton Joseph, a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Forest Service, weighed his options as the fire grew. He had 320 firefighters, all sent within minutes of the first report.
They couldn’t get much closer without hiking in. Jutting rocks and thick chaparral covered the hillside and radio dispatchers called out warnings about open mine shafts.
Joseph, 46, was keenly aware of the danger of sending firefighters into the burning canyon on foot. A compact man with a thick mustache, Joseph had been fighting fires since lying about his age to become a firefighter at 16.
As he plotted how to attack the Cedar fire, Joseph thought of the historic Inaja blaze.
Joseph’s father had been a crew boss the night of Nov. 26, 1956, when 11 firefighters were killed. Kenneth Joseph had shouted a warning, then watched as the men were trapped by wind-driven flames in a steep gorge. When his son was born the next year, he named the boy after his fallen colleague and best friend, 19-year-old Carlton Lingo.
“I always think of that ... anytime you’re thinking of fire in the San Diego River Valley,” Joseph said. “Steep slopes. Dried-out brush.... We would have been hanging ourselves out there if we’d tried walking people in, because it just wasn’t safe.”
The Inaja deaths prompted congressional hearings that led to the 10 rules of firefighting, which have shaped the training and strategy of fire commanders ever since.
Rule No. 1: Keep informed of fire, weather conditions and the forecast.
The Cedar fire burned slowly at first. But at 8 p.m. Saturday, the National Weather Service reported that Santa Ana winds would pick up overnight, with gusts of up to 50 mph blowing southwest.
The forecast did not panic the fire commanders in the forest. “There had been predictions of Santa Ana winds for the two previous days that never really materialized,” said Randy Lyle, a state fire chief working with Joseph.
Joseph thought the fire would stay in the forest until dawn, when aircraft could dump water and retardant. He planned to fight at sunrise, with bulldozers, aircraft and more than 1,400 firefighters.
10 p.m.: Weighing the Threat
Smoke wafted over Country Estates, a suburban community of 10,000 people living in stucco homes and townhouses on the western edge of the forest. Ash dropped like a light snow.
A handful of firefighters had gone there as a precaution. Mortier, of the U.S. Forest Service, and Zombro, of the California Department of Forestry, had stayed voluntarily, worried about the fire.
Now looking toward the forest from Country Estates, Mortier could see “a hell of a lot of fire out there.” He called Joseph in the forest and suggested they prepare to defend the tract’s 3,000 homes.
“Carlton was a little surprised. He said, ‘Do you think it can make it to the Estates?’ And I said, ‘When that wind surfaces, I think it can.’ ” Mortier recalled.
Mortier asked Joseph to order five more strike teams — five engines each — for Country Estates.
Fire commanders in the Cleveland National Forest had a different view. So far, the fire was growing slowly. Maybe the Santa Ana winds would not come at all. The fight, they said, would be waged in the forest.
“It wasn’t a 300,000-acre killer house-burning fire at that point,” said Randy Lyle.
All orders had to go through the Monte Vista Command Center. The head of the dispatch center was surprised by speculation the fire could hit homes that night. He asked Mortier: Could this really be true?
“And I said, ‘Yeah, it could be true,’ ” Mortier recalled. “He explained to me his dilemma: Do I move them up there, the last remaining engines in the county, essentially?”
With other Southern California blazes raging, the Cedar fire commanders said they didn’t want to leave communities vulnerable when there might be no need.
“Randy and I talked and said, right now it’s not an imminent threat. It’s a potential threat,” Joseph recalled. “Maybe we’ll wait a little longer.”
From the air, the sheriff’s helicopter pilots reached a different conclusion. Rocky Laws called his bosses and advised them to set up a command post at Country Estates. The fire, he said, was out of control.
11 p.m.: Country Estates
The fire was so intense, so hot that huge swaths of dry brush were erupting in flames. Kelly Zombro watched 60 acres ignite in an instant.
Don Bartletti / LAT
Against a backdrop of the burned hills east of Ramona where the Cedar fire began, Kelly Zombro is thanked by resident Phil Harding. Zombro was one of the first on the scene and coordinated fire units that saved hundreds of homes at Country Estates.
“I want strike team orders and they aren’t doing it, and I’ve got ashes landing,” an agitated Zombro told the Monte Vista dispatcher shortly after 11 p.m. “I’ve got smoke rolling over the ridge and down over the homes now. And I still have nothing responding here.”
The dispatcher said officials at the command center were trying to “get a clear idea” of the fire.
“Well let me tell ya, I’m watching what I think are probably 75-foot flames right now just rolling,” Zombro responded.
At midnight, the forecast Santa Ana winds began gusting, pushing the fire even faster. The sheriff’s helicopter hovered over red-tiled roofs, battling the wind to stay low enough to be heard. Laws shouted over the chopper’s public address system: “You need to evacuate immediately! This is a really big fire!”
Joseph told Mortier he was sending two more strike teams to protect the development. Did they need more?
“Well, we’ve wanted five all along,” Mortier said.
Now Joseph asked how long before the fire would hit homes. Mortier told him three to four hours.
Thirty minutes later, Zombro saw a spot fire less than half a mile away. Embers spewed hundreds of yards ahead of the fire’s front, moving it forward in huge leaps.
Most of the crews were still in the forest, waiting. Some were asleep. California Department of Forestry Battalion Chief Ray Chaney called over the radio: “I need all the crews waked, woke up, hooked up” and sent to Country Estates.
The first homes burned at 12:35 a.m.
One had been a family’s dream, a large tile-roofed stucco house surrounded by a 50-yard firebreak of gravel and ice plant. The owners hadn’t even finished unpacking.
As Country Estates burned, Zombro was now in charge. The 38-year-old battalion chief wasn’t trying to fight the fire anymore, just protect property and lives. He had only one fire engine for every 20 houses threatened. Typically, he would want to have an engine for every one or two homes.
Driving the streets in the truck that served as his command post, Zombro grew increasingly frustrated. More than a dozen times, he jumped from his truck to stomp out flames with his boots or turn a garden hose on the fire. “I should not have been doing that,” he said later. “I should have been standing back and just seeing the big picture.”
The road out of Country Estates had turned into a parking lot.
Firefighters were supposed to tell sheriff’s deputies which neighborhoods to evacuate. But given the chaos, deputies acted on their own and Zombro did not object.
What information was known didn’t always get passed along. State and federal fire officials broadcast over two radio channels, older fire rigs pressed into service used a third. Sheriff’s deputies used a fourth.
Deputies had a hard time communicating with firefighters.
The most reliable way to stay in touch was for Sheriff’s Lt. Al Collier to trail fire commanders, then broadcast the information over the sheriff’s frequency.
At one point radio traffic got so clogged that Sheriff’s Cmdr. Robert Apostolos, the highest-ranking officer at the scene, left the command post to find Collier in person. “We had trouble getting hold of him and sometimes we weren’t being heard,” Apostolos said.
Firefighters also struggled to get through.
San Diego City Fire Battalion Chief Criss Brainard got to Country Estates about 12:45 a.m., leading a strike team of 20 men. He got little direction. Outside the San Diego city limits, he couldn’t reach city dispatchers because his radio was out of range. He kept trying the county’s radio system but got no answer.
When four of his firefighters suffered neck and eye burns, Brainard drove around until he found cellular phone reception so he could call an ambulance.
1 a.m. , Pacific Standard Time: Wildcat Canyon
Zombro was stranded at Country Estates. As the firefighter in charge that night, it was his job to stay ahead of the fire. But the radio system made it impossible. He was the only ranking officer at the scene with enough radios to monitor all three firefighting channels.
So about 1 a.m., just after the clocks were turned back an hour to end daylight saving time, Zombro sent Ray Chaney to get in front of the fire as it sped southwest toward the rural canyons along Wildcat Canyon Road.
With a sheriff’s lieutenant in the passenger seat, the battalion chief drove south on Wildcat Canyon, a winding 10-mile road popular with bikers and competitive cyclists. The spine of a sparsely populated rural area, it is the only road leading to the Barona Casino, centerpiece of a new resort on the Barona Indian Reservation.
The fire seemed to be chasing Chaney as he drove. He saw no way for firefighters to get ahead of the flames and stage a defense. “I just wanted to get everyone out of its way,” Chaney said. “I’ve never seen fire move at that rate of speed. ‘Biblical’ is the best description for what I saw. I was scared. We were all scared.”
Lisa Muzyk had been playing the electronic slot machines at the Barona Casino for about two hours when an announcement came over the loudspeaker at midnight: Wildcat Canyon Road to the north was closed because of fire. Muzyk, 38, of Del Mar, said most of the gamblers didn’t even pause.
Across the road from the cavernous casino, six firefighters were asleep in the small cinder-block station that protects the Barona Indian Reservation’s 140 homes and 500 residents.
Barona firefighter Scott Webster said he had heard on the fire dispatch radio about 10 p.m. that the blaze was “10 to 15 acres, and it’s going to be out in a couple hours.”
Then he and his colleagues turned down the radio to sleep. They missed hearing the increasing alarm in firefighters voices as they discussed the fire’s size and speed. They did not hear fire officials at 11 p.m. talk about notifying the Indian reservation.
They woke up at midnight, when a dispatcher called to say the blaze might hit homes in Country Estates in three hours. The Barona firefighters volunteered one of their two engines to help. They did not realize the fire was quickly heading their way.
Their first clue came an hour later.
Ken Lurcook, one of 150 people camping overnight at the reservation’s motocross track for the Sunday races, had been smelling smoke. He called the casino. “They told us, ‘Don’t worry about the fire. It’s nowhere close,’ ” he said.
He and his wife, Tammy, wanted to see for themselves. They drove up a hill and saw the fire’s glow. “It was a cold evening, but all of a sudden it got really hot,” he said.
Increasingly worried, Lurcook called the reservation, and the Barona firefighters came to take a look. They saw flames in the distance angling forward at 45 degrees and Lurcook suggested it might be a good idea to leave.
“I told my wife and daughter to start running to trailers, pound on doors, open doors, wake people up, get them up and start evacuating,” Lurcook said. “We knew we had to go. I don’t think anybody looked back.”
When the Barona firefighters returned to their station about 2 a.m., Chaney was waiting. You have 20 minutes to evacuate, he told them.
The station’s remaining firefighters headed out to the 7,000-acre reservation taking the only equipment left — a brush engine and a paramedic truck. Chaney sped on to the casino. There were about 2,000 gamblers and 500 employees there. He told the manager to close the drapes and stop anyone from leaving.
“I told him he had basically 10 to 15 minutes before a wall of flames hit the casino,” he said.
Chaney waited in his truck at the casino’s entrance. He hoped the massive parking lot and surrounding golf course, with little to burn, would prevent the fire from reaching the buildings. He worried that the crowd would panic if people saw the fire. He imagined fleeing gamblers burning in their cars.
Inside, the lights flickered. Then the power went out, silencing the clanging of the gambling machines. For a few minutes, people waited in darkness before a generator kicked some of the machines back to life. The overhead lights remained dark.
Muzyk, still working the slots, heard the announcement: No one was allowed to leave. Security guards stood at the doors and told people they had to remain for their own safety.
In a night where few guesses proved right, Chaney’s gamble paid off. Like a moat, the parking lot and golf course protected the casino as flames raged past.
But the fire was consuming nearly everything else in its path.
2 a.m.: Wildcat Canyon
More than a dozen residents of a Wildcat Canyon neighborhood known as Strange Way were waking up to the barking of dogs, the smell of smoke and phone calls from neighbors.
Lonnie Bellante drove less than a quarter of a mile with his wife, Lori, and 13- and 11-year-old daughters before the smoke and fire became too intense. He turned his pickup truck around and headed toward a small pond. “There were times I couldn’t see anything,” the 49-year-old casino worker said.
Genaro Molina / LAT
Lonnie Bellante, hugging daughter Lindi, his wife, Lori and daughters Lindi, 11, and Melanie, 13, huddled on a dirt flat as the fire rushed over them.
Before the Bellantes could reach the water, the tires on the Ford F-150 exploded and the engine stalled. Smoke billowed around them. The engine burst into flames.
The family ran from the truck. But the girls were running toward the fire. Lori screamed for them to turn back. One of the girls pointed to her mother’s arm, blackened by the heat. Together, they reached a barren stretch of land where they curled up on the ground. They covered their mouths with shirts to keep out the smoke.
Fire roared over them, and it was hard to breathe.
“It is what I imagine a furnace would feel like,” Lori Bellante said later.
Like others in the canyons that border Wildcat Canyon Road, they had no one to help them, and without the emergency broadcast system activated, there was no TV or radio warning. Eight of Bellante’s neighbors died.
Strange Way’s steep dirt roads don’t appear on most maps. Although they were a short distance from the Barona reservation’s fire station, residents fell under the jurisdiction of the county’s Rural Fire Protection District. The chronically underfunded department covers 720 square miles, the largest district in San Diego County, with 14 full-time firefighters and 97 volunteers. Only one of its 13 stations is open 24 hours and only three are staffed by professionals.
“We were overwhelmed, we were tapped out well above where we should have been,” said David Nissen, chief of the district. “It makes you feel sick to think you couldn’t do anything.”
‘Everything Was on Fire’
The few firefighters who made it into Wildcat Canyon had never seen anything like it.
Mark Kramer, an Orange County Fire battalion chief summoned to help, drove with his 15-man crew on roads that had walls of flames on both sides.
“All the oaks in Wildcat Canyon looked like they were strung with lights, like in Disneyland,” he said.
“You know a snowstorm with the snow coming at you sideways? It was like that with embers, embers coming at you sideways,” said Andre Voelker, a state firefighter. “Everything was on fire. Even the road was on fire. The rubber on the power lines was on fire.”
The smoke was so thick that firefighters drove past hydrants, and deputies could only spot driveways by the mailboxes.
The radio channels were so crowded that when firefighters and deputies tried to talk they were often thwarted — blocked by a beeping sound known as “honking.”
To keep users from talking over one another, the system automatically clusters people in close proximity on separate channels. In other parts of San Diego, as many as 20 groups can operate at once; but in the east county, only four groups can can talk simultaneously. County officials knew of the shortcomings in the more rural area where the Cedar fire began, but the $9-million cost of upgrading the radios had been deemed too steep.
“There were probably several hundred times where I keyed the mike and it honked at me, telling me the system was busy,” said Nissen, chief of the vast rural fire district. “The system wasn’t designed for this type of incident.... It’s very frustrating.”
As the radios honked at firefighters and deputies, dispatchers in Monte Vista were fielding frantic 911 calls.
“My house is about to catch on fire,” said one man from Wildcat Canyon Road. He pleaded for help, then panicked when the dispatcher said fire officials would “try to get an engine in.”
“Get your stuff and get your family out of there,” the dispatcher instructed. The man said he needed to alert his neighbors. “Sir, you need to take some deep breaths, slow down, ‘cause you need to get through this,” the dispatcher said. In the canyon, Deputy Steven Brewer was trying to help residents escape.
Brewer, 41, pulled into a driveway off Blue Sky Ranch Road, where a man was sitting in his station wagon. Fire was at the back of the house. He yelled at the man to follow him out of the neighborhood.
On the radio Brewer heard: “Deputy on Blue Sky, get out now.” He moved on to the next street, thinking he would have time to warn residents. Three carloads of people drove out as he went in.
He was 150 feet down the street when he heard someone on the radio order: Get out now. “I thought: ‘Why? The fire is still up the block.’ And I looked in my rearview mirror and saw a wall of flames. It had jumped, I’m thinking probably 100 yards or more, in minutes.”
Leading a caravan of people and horses out of a sparsely populated neighborhood east of Wildcat Canyon Road, Deputies Mark Johnston and Mariano Tano were stopped by a wall of flames.
Johnston called dispatch shortly after 2 a.m. to say that fire blocked the only escape route. At least a dozen people were trapped.
Genaro Molina / LAT
San Diego County Sheriff’s Deputies Mark Johnston, left, and Mariano Tano, with German shepherd Uoschi, volunteered to evacuate remote homes in Featherstone Canyon. They were soon pinned down by flames.
Dispatch said fire crews were on their way. Minutes later, they called back: No help would be coming. It was too dangerous. Johnston recalled someone over the radio saying: “There is nothing we can do.”
Sheriff’s commanders called the trapped deputies with instructions: Bunk down in a nearby ranch house. Stuff blankets under the doors. Wait out the fire.
In the ranch house, smoke poured through every crevice. Tano, who had his German shepherd, Uoschi, with him, told Johnston they would be better off near the dirt, where there was less for the fire to burn.
The deputies parked their cruisers at the lowest point they could find, and hoped the fire would blow over them. A dispatcher called and asked for their identification numbers, along with a head count of residents. Authorities would want to know how many bodies to look for the next morning.
They sat in their patrol cars, motors running, Johnston with his air conditioner on full blast. He considered calling his wife on his cellular phone. Then he decided not to.
“Why tell her I’m about to be burned to death in a raging fire?” he said later.
Johnston thought about her and his 3-year-old son, wondering who would take care of them. As Uoschi whimpered and panted in the back seat, Tano thought about how painful it would be to burn to death.
For three hours, Tano and Johnston were pinned down by lingering flames.
Finally, Tano stuck his hand out his patrol car window. The air was cooler. Stars peeked through the smoke in the predawn light.Covered in soot, the deputies went to look for the others. Many homes had burned, but everyone in Featherstone Canyon had lived. The deputies exchanged high-fives.
On their way down Wildcat Canyon Road, a white pickup truck pulled up carrying burn victims, including a mother and two children, charred black on their arms, hands and chests.
It was the Bellantes. They had all survived. The deputies called for paramedics.
Then they helped firefighters bring out the dead. Seeing the scorched bodies, Johnston and Tano knew they had been lucky. They agonized about not having done more.
“All cops want to put the bad guy away,” Tano said. “This fire was the bad guy, and there were people who needed our help.”
Dawn: In the Fire’s Path
In Poway, Chief Mark Sanchez had 15 firefighters to protect the city’s 49,000 residents.
Only brush-filled open space stood between the fire and his bedroom community on the northeastern outskirts of San Diego.
The Poway fire chief watched the flames jump California 67 and head toward homes, winds blowing more than 50 mph. All four of his city’s available engines were trying to save burning houses. Some of his men jumped into a city pickup truck and grabbed garden hoses to put out flames.
Sanchez had been lending out men and equipment for days: one engine at the Camp Pendleton fire, one in Rancho Cucamonga and one in San Bernardino. And Sanchez had sent one of his five remaining engines to Country Estates earlier that night.
“I called San Diego for resources,” Sanchez said. “They had nobody.”
The city of San Diego’s Fire Department was in poor shape to help anyone. With 880 firefighters and officers, 57 engines and 11 brush units, San Diego has one of the lowest ratios of firefighters to residents of any large city in the United States. Elected officials
Allen J. Schaben / LAT
Poway Fire Chief Mark Sanchez had only 15 firefighters and four rigs as a massive fire bore down on his city of 49,000. He had been lending equipment to fight other fires for days. He told his wife: That was the worst day of my life.
have repeatedly rejected proposals to pay for an expanded force, despite warnings the city was unprepared for a serious fire.
The department had already lent 11 engines and about 25 men to fight the Old and Grand Prix fires in San Bernardino County before the Cedar fire began. Shortly before midnight, the city sent an additional 10 engines and more than 40 firefighters to Country Estates.
As Poway began to burn, Sanchez was desperate.
“My thoughts are, ‘I’ve got to evacuate people, I’ve got to get them out. I don’t have anything to fight fire with,’ ” Sanchez said. He radioed the sheriff’s Poway station and called for evacuations of more than 200 homes.
As Poway’s chief for 13 years, he had never lost a home to wildfires. Now he wondered how much of his city would burn. “I’ve never been in a position where you didn’t have anyone to call on,” he said.
The sun was coming up when Sanchez saw five Orange County fire engines that had been headed east, stopped at California 67 by a wall of flames.
“It looked like Armageddon,” said Orange County Battalion Chief Marc Hawkins.
Sanchez told Hawkins he had homes burning and no one to fight the fires. Hawkins said his engines couldn’t reach their command post.
Where do you want us? Hawkins asked.
Sanchez remembered thinking: “God, there is somebody here to help me.”
Poway, the city where Kelly Zombro grew up and first fought fires as a teenage volunteer, would lose 54 homes before the fire was through that week.
7:30 a.m.: San Diego
In Scripps Ranch, residents were going about their Sunday morning routines — buying bagels, reading the paper and getting ready for church. Although some on the eastern edge of the affluent development noticed the smoke, everything seemed normal: no fire rigs on the streets, no sheriff’s officials and little news on TV or radio beyond the blaze’s destruction miles to the east.
Tom Amabile, who was running the San Diego County Office of Emergency Services overnight, twice went back to sleep after getting updates on the fire. He had not opened the county’s emergency command center until after 5 a.m., when he got a third call, this one saying houses had burned. Since he wasn’t asked to, he never activated the emergency broadcast system, which would have sent out warnings over TV and radio.
Fifteen hours after the blaze started, fire officials were still underestimating the Cedar fire.
Flames had burned through the eastern part of Miramar Marine Corps Air Station in a little more than an hour — faster than city officials believed possible.
At 8:02 a.m., the fire reached the San Diego city limits, a mile from Scripps Ranch. Only a handful of fire crews were waiting.
Sheriff’s helicopters flew over the wood shake and red tile roofs of the sprawling suburban tract, broadcasting evacuation orders over their public address systems. Thousands of residents began to flee in cars and on foot. They had only 20 minutes before the first homes burned.
When the fire hit Scripps Ranch, the city had mustered 25 engines and about 112 firefighters. For a single house fire, San Diego fire officials said, they would normally send four engines, two ladder trucks and two battalion chiefs.
The San Diego Fire Department put out a mutual aid plea about 8:30 a.m. Thirty homes were on fire. San Diego asked the California Department of Forestry for 10 more strike teams — 50 engines and dozens of firefighters.
The request went unanswered.
Zombro and other fire commanders had been turning down pleas for hours. “There was a couple times I was almost in tears because I knew those guys needed it and I couldn’t give it to them,” he said later. “I had to tell them, ‘I have nothing for you.’ ”
Shortly after 10 a.m., Assistant San Diego Fire Chief Tracy Jarman used local TV and radio stations to call for all off-duty firefighters. Hundreds of San Diego firefighters responded, but the county was out of fire rigs and equipment.
“We were on our own,” Jarman said. “Either we stopped it or it burns the whole city.”
Over two days, fire would destroy 345 homes in Scripps Ranch.
A Fire Like: No Other
Firefighters fight new fires by remembering the past.
The Cedar fire had two models: the 1956 Inaja fire and a 1993 spring blaze known as the Mother’s Day fire, which burned about 2,600 acres of brush before being contained in Barona Mesa, a plateau south of Country Estates.
Those fires guided many decisions the first night of the Cedar fire.
But the Cedar fire quickly defied expectations. At its height, the Inaja fire burned 2,000 acres an hour. The Cedar fire consumed 12,000 acres an hour at its worst.
In retrospect, aspects of its unusual scale were noted by many people. But at the time, nobody put the pieces together.
A wind-driven fire usually moves in the shape of an arrow. The pointed front allows firefighters to cut breaks in the terrain and attack the fire at its narrowest.
The Cedar fire was different. It began when there was little wind, allowing it to spread like a pancake on a griddle. Then the Santa Ana winds gusted. Fire experts said the speed of the wind coupled with a shift in direction created a wall of flames, turning the flank of fire that normally trails the arrowhead into the front itself. The front is almost never more than two miles wide; this one was estimated to have been five miles.
The dead brush in the path of the Cedar fire had a moisture content of 2% to 3%. Newspapers, by comparison, typically have a moisture content of about 10%.
The Santa Ana winds, blowing hot, dry air from the desert, accelerated the fire’s advance by throwing burning embers hundreds of feet. At one point the fire jumped 12 lanes of Interstate 15. It was so hot it melted asphalt.
At Country Estates that first night, Zombro kept trying to grasp the scope of the fire from piecemeal observations coming over the radios.
The second rule of firefighting: Know what your fire is doing at all times.
That night, Zombro said, “only God knew what was really going on.”
By Monday, state firefighter Andre Voelker had been working the fire for more than 36 hours. In that time, he and his mates had moved from the Cleveland National Forest to Country Estates to Wildcat Canyon to the fire’s northern front in the small town of Wynola.
While trying to save a house there, they found feathers and placed them in their helmets, naming themselves the Wild Turkeys.
“That’s what we were,” said Voelker, who had worked as a stand-up comic. “We were fighting this fire like wild turkeys. We almost died five times in this fire, between a diesel tender exploding and bullets going off in a house were trying to save.... If we hadn’t been watching each other’s backs, we’d be dead.”
In Wildcat Canyon, Joe McLean asked why no one had looked out for him and his neighbors. McLean, his wife and daughter managed to escape the flames on the only road out of Lake View Hills Estates. Four of his neighbors died.
“I never heard a siren, no one honked their horn, there were no bullhorns,” he said. “We were on our own. I understand that they were overwhelmed, but someone knew it was coming.”
His neighbor, Larry Redden, said those who choose to live in an isolated rural community know the risks.
“You can’t depend on anyone but yourself when you live out in this type of terrain,” said Redden, 65, who retired last year after three decades with the San Diego Fire Department. “You can’t depend on someone giving you a warning at 3 a.m. like you can in the city.”
It took more than 2,200 firefighters and a change in luck — with rain and cooler temperatures — to bring the Cedar fire under control. As late as mid-December lingering embers from the fire were still being extinguished.
Laws, the helicopter pilot, fears he may have failed, berating himself for misjudging the speed of the fire. “It just went so fast,” he said. “It’s not like I’m going to need counseling. I don’t feel personally responsible. I just felt very bad. I’m one of the guys who is supposed to stop things like this from happening.”
Like others who worked the Cedar fire, Deputy Brewer also worried he could have done more.
“I read in the paper that some of the people who perished [were] in the area of Wildcat Canyon,” he said, “but I don’t know if any of those people lived on the streets that I couldn’t get to.”
When the 19-year veteran went back to Wildcat Canyon to see for himself, some of the houses where he had evacuated people had burned down. “I feel good that I tried,” he said.
Nissen, the rural fire chief whose district covered the area where many of the people died, said he felt fire commanders should have fought the blaze in the forest.
“Don’t get me wrong here, I’m not saying that we could have gone down there and prevented this,” said Nissen, who was among the firefighters watching in the forest. “What I am saying is that it was certainly worth a shot to send hand crews, dozers, whatever means you have at your disposal to go down there and put this thing out.”
Zombro, who realized his boyhood dream when he quit high school two weeks before graduation to join the California Department of Forestry, said he has tried to focus on what went right.
“Something we always forget to do is look at what we saved,” he said. “There’s a lot more houses standing than we lost.”
This story was reported by Times staff writers Jack Leonard, Christine Hanley, Stuart Pfeifer and Megan Garvey. It was written by Garvey. Times staff writer Joel Rubin contributed to this report.
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