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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Another vector movement of fire moved almost south-southeast down by the El Capitan Reservoir and across Interstate 8 east of Lakeside and into the communities of Alpine, Crest, Harbison Canyon and Dehesa, and it just wasted a whole bunch of houses. The first day, the fire probably destroyed 1,500 residences. Then the Santa Ana winds quit.

The offshore winds quit and we got a dry on-shore wind, so now the whole east side of the fire, which we’re trying to start perimeter controls on, is basically a whole line of fire. It’s not a point of fire. It’s a line of fire – and it’s a 20-mile-long line of fire. It starts to move east into from the communities of Santa Ysabel south to Descanso, and we had Red Flag warnings predicted for that part on the east side.

At this point, I knew it was going to be bad because the worst time for firefighters’ safety is in a reversing Santa Ana wind, when the wind reverses from offshore to onshore, which we were encountering. I knew also in 1956 upwards of eight or 10 firefighters died in a similar situation.

We had our morning briefing. I looked at the situation and I decided we had to put our best horses in the toughest races. I got hold of Chief Clayton at about 11 o’clock in the morning. I said, “Bill, I have a special assignment for you. You’re going to be the department IC (incident commander) to oversee operations on the whole east end of the fire.” He said, “I’ll get an aide and I’ll get out there right now.” We had Clayton as a deputy IC for operations. We had George Morrison and Bill Orthell as the operations section chiefs and we had Ray Chaney, a young eager CDF battalion chief, as the Branch III of Julian, and things went to hell beginning on Tuesday.

On Tuesday, Clayton called me in the morning. He says, “John, this thing is just kicking us. It’s coming down off Mount Cuyamaca Peak and it’s moving down toward Highway 79. It’s going to move into Julian and it’s not a good situation. We’re going to lose structures. Send us 25 engine strike teams, 125 engines.”

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Chris Jensen/CFPA
Tremendous smoke conditions are visible from quite a distance from many of the fires in Southern California.

We had already placed an order for 100 engine strike teams. That’s 500 engines immediate need, which means they respond Code 3. The firefighters were deployed and many of them had been on the line for 60 hours with no rest. They hung in there. We’d say, “You want some relief?” They’d say, “No, just feed us, we’ll keep going.” A Los Angeles City assistant chief came to me. He responded with a couple of engine strike teams. He said, “We’re here from L.A. City. I said, “We’re glad. Where do you want to go?” “We want to go to the front.”

On Wednesday, things really went to hell. The fire crossed the San Diego River drainage northwest of Julian at about noon. It was running hard. We sent in an engine strike team from Northern California, good firefighters, in Novato Engine 6162. It was assigned to a house at 920 Orchard Lane about one-half mile north of the rural community of Wynola. It was about 1300 hours when they were burned over.

I’m back at the command post down at El Cajon and one of the ops chiefs comes around the corner. He says, “Chief, I got to talk to you, some people have been burned and maybe killed.” Shortly thereafter, Rich Hawkins, who was the Cleveland National Forest IC, said to me, “John, I just got it from the Cleveland dispatch. It’s a firefighter.”

I got up. I trotted around the corner to where the ops chiefs were. Ops Chief Bill Orthell was working with the San Diego County Sheriff’s rep and the CHP (California Highway Patrol) rep. They were coordinating evacuations, road closures and firefights. I went around to the sheriff’s side of the car and Laurie Byrd, who was the sheriff’s commander there, said, “John, look me in the eye.” I looked her in the eye and she said, “It’s a firefighter, you’ve got to hold still.” At that point, we realized that it was sketchy information. Shortly thereafter, Clayton called me. He told me what happened.

We started to make the notifications and we found out one of the major TV broadcast companies at the scene had already called Novato Fire Chief Jeff Meston and told him that he’d lost a firefighter, and that’s within 10 minutes of the accident they had called. We tried our best to make the notifications.