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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I remember right before the President got there, the San Diego Mayor’s PIO said, “John, I’ve got a special favor, and CNN wants you live.” They put me on live nationwide on CNN to give a rundown on what’s going on at the fire. The fire was huge in so many aspects, but what Firehouse® really caters to is the firefighter. From the bottom up, firefighters were just outstanding. I mean they were great. It didn’t matter what fire department they were from, they were great.

We know how to communicate, how to work with each other. And the three C’s, one of the things I always stress to our command team are what are called the three C’s, communication, cooperation and coordination and those are our rules.

Another thing we always try to do is put a positive spin to every issue. Instead of coming in and complaining well, this is a damn deal, this is a bad deal, what we try to do is to say, OK, that’s what we’re faced with. As a command team, it’s not our job to whine, it’s our job to make it work. So we try to put a positive spin on everything and that’s what we try to do.

We’re taught don’t accept gratuities, don’t accept gratuities, but you couldn’t go anywhere. I couldn’t eat regular meals in the incident base, so I’d have to stop in McDonald’s or In-N-Out. They wouldn’t take your money. They would say this is on the house. Somebody else would buy it for you, a civilian would buy you it for you. Some of our firefighters, the last night they were there, they went to a seafood restaurant down in San Diego. When they walked in, they were in uniform, they got a standing ovation from the 200 people that were there and some anonymous person bought their dinner.

You couldn’t go into a store. They’d say no, it’s on the house. The people were there to support us. I can remember everywhere you’d walk, people would come up to you and they’d just hug you and they’d say we love you, we love our firefighters. The outpouring of respect to the firefighters, it was tough at times. I made a point of anyone and everyone who said anything to me like that, I made a point of putting my arm around them and saying we love you, thank you for your support. Wherever possible, we tried to give. I had a pocket full of pins, lapel pins, CDF pins, and wherever we’d see a kid, pass them a trading card. The kids would love it.

It’s not about us. It’s about making those kids feel good about themselves or the parents. You would be driving down the freeway and somebody would start honking wildly at you. You would look out the window and the whole family, the whole family is giving you the thumbs-up. You drive down the street and there would be all these paper signs that would be hanging that say we love you firefighters or thank you for what you did or whatever. The outpouring of gratitude was tremendous. It was unbelievable.

Enough can’t be said about the firefighters. I mean the firefighter, didn’t matter who he was or what he was or she was, whether they were wildland, structural, a combination like CDF, the firefighters they stood the test and they were positive. I see them in the food line. I always make a point of talking to firefighters and saying how are you doing. “Chief, we’re just proud to be here, turn us loose.”

John Hawkins will present “ICS Divisions or Groups: Your Choice” at Firehouse World 2005 in San Diego, Jan. 31-Feb. 4.


DEPUTY CHIEF JOHN HAWKINS
John Hawkins is a deputy chief with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF Fire) and Riverside County Fire Department. He has worked for CDF Fire since 1964, when he started as a seasonal firefighter, and subsequently worked up through the ranks. Hawkins supervises Special Operations, including Training, Health and Safety, EMS, Fire Prevention and Fire Protection Planning, Hazards Materials, technical rescue, video production, the Emergency Command Center, telecommunications, information technology and Pre-Fire Management.

Hawkins holds a bachelor of science degree in forest management from Humboldt State College and an associate of arts degree in fire science from Butte Community College. He is a certified California Chief Fire Officer and a graduate of the National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer Program. He served two terms as a Type 1 Incident Commander for CDF Fire and has performed as a Type 1 Operations Section Chief on both national and state incident command teams. He was the incident commander on the Cedar Fire, which burned 273,000 acres. The interview was conducted by Harvey Eisner.