The Cedar Fire: Some Personal Observations

Jan. 1, 2005
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 overhead – already committed on incidents.
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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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