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 immediately went about making a next-of-kin notification. We used our fixed-wing aircraft to fly the next of kin to El Cajon. I had to go to the burn center because there were a total of four firefighters on that engine, Fire Captain Greg McDonald, Engineer Sean Kreps, Engineer Steve Rucker and Firefighter Barrett Smith. In fact, those guys were Jedis. The two that had minor burns had some of their paramedic ALS gear with them and they put an IV in the captain, who survived. They stuck him right there, even though they were burned themselves.

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Chris Jensen/CFPA
Several thousand houses and outbuildings were destroyed during the fires.

I went to the UC San Diego Burn Center at about 4 o’clock. I saw Sean and Barrett. They had minor burns on their backs, but they needed to talk. They needed to tell somebody what happened. I spent three or four hours with them. That night, we had a press conference and it was one of the toughest things I ever had to do in my career. I had to go on live TV and say we lost a firefighter, the Cedar Fire killed a firefighter today at Julian. The captain, Doug McDonald, was sedated and intubated so he had to stay in the hospital. I could never see him because he was in a sterile environment, but the other two guys, Barrett Smith and Sean Kreps, they were released the next morning. They went into CISD (critical incident stress debriefing) and we secluded them at a hotel and tried to keep them away from public exposure.

I remember I had a hard time sleeping that night. The next morning, I thought, well, what would firefighters like? Firefighters like books about firefighting. On my way to the hospital, I bought several books. I found all the firefighters. Even though they were doing CISD, we talked for 15 minutes, gave them the books, passed some firefighter hugs and left because the firefighting was still going. The afternoon before, Chief Turner had propped me up. He said, “John, you’ve got to pick it up, you’re our leader, you got to carry us on.” That was great. I’ll never forget Chief Turner for that and I told him that.

We got up to a point in time where we had 722 engines assigned to the fire and it was a huge fire. It turned out to be the largest fire in California history at 280,000 acres. It is not the worst fire from destruction or death. On the Cedar Fire, 14 people died, including Engineer Steve Rucker and 13 civilians. Eight of them died in a place called Wildcat Canyon in Barona.

The worst fire in California history for deaths was the Oct. 20, 1991, Oakland Berkeley Hills Fire. It killed 25, including one fire battalion chief, one Oakland police officer and 23 civilians. It destroyed 3,300 dwelling units. The Cedar Fire destroyed 2,232 dwelling units and about another 600 other buildings, garages, sheds, outbuildings, of which 22 were commercial buildings. It ended up destroying a little over 2,800 buildings; it burned 280,000 acres, whereas the Oakland Berkeley Hills Fire burned only 1,700 acres.

I got a chance to meet President George W. Bush in the briefing. Clayton is a dandy. Clayton’s flying Bush around in the Marine 1 helicopter and he’s telling Bush about what a character I am, calls me a rascal. When Bush meets me, he shakes my hand and he looks at me in the briefing room. He goes, “So you’re the one, ha?” I said, “Yes, sir, Mr. President, I guess so.” The President turns to Clayton and he goes, “Bill, is this the one you were telling me about?” and Bill says, “Yeah, everything I told you and more is true, he’s a dandy,” and so the President shook my hand. He says, “Good man. I’m proud to meet you. Now give me the cook’s tour, don’t give me some fancy presidential rundown. I want to know the good, the bad and the ugly.” He was great.

Then, of course, our former governor, Gray Davis, was there at the same time and our new governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger. I put a CDF hat on Arnold and I also put a CDF Command Team V hat and a CDF Fire black hat on President Bush. President Bush turned around to all the people there in the picture, put the red hat on. He said, “This would make a good fishing hat.” I got to tour around Senator Barbara Boxer and I gave Tom Ridge from Homeland Security a briefing, Dave Paulison from the U.S. Fire Administration was there. Michael Brown from FEMA. It was very interesting to meet the different people.

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Chris Jensen/CFPA
Chief John Hawkins, left, talks with Chief Bill Clayton at the logistical incident support base at Gillespie Field. Eventually, 722 engines were requested to respond to the Cedar Fire.