The Cedar Fire: Some Personal Observations

Deputy Chief John Hawkins offers his personal insights into the events of the California fire storms.


We had a Northern California conference call of all the CDF units by counties and discussed the different situations. I had planted a seed: if Southern California takes off, let’s send the Northern California team down there because they probably will have a lot of their chiefs – or what we call...


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We had a Northern California conference call of all the CDF units by counties and discussed the different situations. I had planted a seed: if Southern California takes off, let’s send the Northern California team down there because they probably will have a lot of their chiefs – or what we call overhead – already committed on incidents.

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Photo by Mike Meadows/CFPA

That proved clearly to be the case. I received a call from our regional duty chief. He says, “Hawkins, we’re activating your team, Command Team V.” We were going as a precautionary move-up to the Operations Control Center in Riverside. Another call said, “It sounds like you’re going to the Old Fire.” I was called again, “You’re going to a series of six new fires in Ventura County west of Los Angeles.” It appeared that that’s where we were going to go.

Dispatch called again and said, “Hawkins, your team is now going to the Verdale Fire in L.A. County near the community of Santa Clarita.” We were assigned to that until early in the morning. Next, I got a call, “Hawkins, you’re going to the original fire called Cedar Springs Fire near San Diego. Get hold of your command team (of which we had 37 people responding). Get those people redirected.” I said OK.

I stopped at the Verdale Fire command post and I talked to some people. The smoke columns were down on the deck. The east winds were howling. I headed south. I saw three major smoke columns. The first one’s the Paradise Fire and it’s big. I got a little farther south and I see smoke that’s four times or five times that size and it was the Cedar Fire. I got a little farther south. Traffic’s really backed up and I see the Otay Fire, which is located on the California-Mexico border.

I got a call from my very good buddy Bill Clayton, who’s a CDF assistant chief. He says, “John, I’m on the Paradise Fire.” Just before that, he had called me on the phone, I heard him request medic units for civilian burn victims. He said, “John, this is really bad. You’re going to the Cedar Fire. The Santa Ana winds are driving these fires crazy. I just saw a lady die in front of me.”

I went to our CDF headquarters at Monte Vista, south of El Cajon. Chief Chuck Maner and Deputy Chief Jim Barta were there to brief the majority of our command team. Chuck told us they had so many fires going that they didn’t have time to prepare the normal written briefing and maps. Chuck also told us he wanted to go in and take over command of the incident. This would be a unified command with the Cleveland National Forest and three local government fire departments, primarily San Diego City Fire, Poway and the Heartland Fire Authority, which represented a consortium of fire departments, but primarily the Lakeside and Santee fire departments.

They gave us directions – go up to Ramona, where the incident base and command post were established. I could hardly get up there. I tried to drive up the Poway Ramona Road and fire was blowing over the road. Driving up there, I knew we were dealing with a huge fire. As soon as I drove into the Ramona incident base, it was too small, never would accommodate everything. I knew we were looking at a minimum of a 500-engine job.

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Courtesy of CDF, USFS and Dore Davis Design

We agreed to move the logistical incident support base to Gillespie Field in El Cajon, which is an airport. We had moved the command post to the Heartland Fire Training Center just a half-mile from the incident base. Through that night, the fire made three two vector runs. The first was a 25-mile run from its origin near Cedar Springs and about eight miles southwest of Julian. It ran down into the Miramar Naval Air Station, where they filmed “Top Gun.” It burned into there and it burned 25 miles for 16 hours. It was a huge fire, but it wasn’t done.

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