Interface The Southern California Fire Storms: A Commentary

Jan. 1, 2004
According to the Fire Chief’s Handbook, a fire storm is violent convection caused by a large, continuous area of intense fire. Fire storms are often characterized by destructively violent surface in-drafts near and beyond the perimeter, and sometimes by tornado-like whirls. The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) Handbook defines a fire storm as intense fire where destruction within the fire storm area is complete. The Southern California fire storms of October 2003 epitomize to the max those definitions.

I was at home in Prescott, AZ, when the first of the Southern California fires began. I was compelled to remain at home throughout the entire Southern California fire storm siege because the fire danger ratings were very high to extreme, with sporadic Red Flag Warnings being posted. For the next week, I watched incredible live TV coverage of the fire storms. Had I traveled to the fire areas, I never would have been able to fully observe and comprehend the unprecedented destruction that these fires wrought upon Southern California.

Those who were there and those who watched the fires on TV were witness to scenes from Dante’s Inferno on earth. Here’s what some very brave videographers and photographers captured: massive convection columns that rose upwards towards the stratosphere; flames that turned night into day and heavy smoke that turned day into night; large areas of vegetation, that sometimes contained structures, would reach flash over temperatures and ignite as though a flame had touched pools of gasoline; walls of fire with flames 200 to 300 feet long and more, rolling along faster than a vehicle can travel on a road; a 10,000 square-foot wood-frame building in a church camp that ignited and collapsed to the ground, throwing out a shower of embers, in under 10 minutes; entire neighborhoods turned into piles of smoking ashes; traffic gridlock caused by fleeing evacuees along the narrow roads leading out of Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear; firefighters being rushed into ambulances after being burned over near Julian and a TV reporter breaking the news about a firefighter fatality; another reporter tried to tell how he and his videographer were trapped by flames and smoke, saved by a firefighter, and that their equipment van was destroyed.

Then there were the many acts of selfless gallantry as strike teams fought to save homes and businesses only to be driven back by smoke, heat and flames – and there were many structures that were saved by firefighters. The Cedar Fire, near San Diego, swept through the small town of Cuyamaca and leveled about 90% of that community. As Cuyamaca Fire Chief Carl Schwiekert was trying to save his town, his own house fell victim to the flames. Firefighter/ Paramedic Caroline Finch saw her house become fully involved as she tried to save her neighbors’ homes.

Mike Meadows is a well-known photojournalist and correspondent for Firehouse®. He sent me some of his graphic observations after filming at the Southern California fires: “I have been to a number of fire storm conditions and chased seven or eight of these major fires to the (Pacific) Ocean. This was the most intense fire storm condition that I have ever seen because it was in big timber. When that fire storm crossed over Highway 18 in the Lake Arrowhead area, that was most impressive.

“A few hours later in Cedar Glen, the fire sounded like a freight train coming through the trees as house after house simply exploded. Everyone got out as there was no way to save any of the 350 homes in that area. Air tankers made salvo drop after drop right on top of homes … and nothing could stop the fire. Had the weather conditions not improved, thousands more homes could have been lost.

“It was a surreal scene when we went down into the canyon (Cedar Glen) after the firefront had passed. Gas lines from burned homes were flaming and hissing. Burning tree limbs were dropping to the ground. As far as you could see there were nothing but standing chimneys, homes still burning and smoldering trees. Not a sound, but the crackling of flames and those hissing gas lines. I’ve been shooting fires for 30 years and have never seen a sight like it. There are many tens of thousands of acres that did not burn that will at some point.”

Near Julian an engine crew from Novato was protecting structures when they were overrun by fire. They tried to outrun the flames and sought refuge in a house. Firefight-er/Engineer Steve Rucker, age 38, became a line-of-duty-death statistic. His captain, Doug McDonald, in his attempt to rescue Rucker, received critical burns to his own body.

Reportedly, because of a lack of common radio frequencies on their engines, the strike teams were unable to communicate with one another. They were unaware of what was happening down the road. If this is accurate information, it brings to mind the safety acronym LCES – Lookouts, Communications, Escape routes and Safety zones. By coincidence, 47 years earlier, a wildland fire burned in that area and it too overran a group of firefighters, killing 11 of them. A monument outside Julian commemorates that incident.

Not only did many firefighters that were struggling to save homes lose their own homes, but it was reported that the police officers who were going through neighborhoods evacuating residents lost their homes to the flames as well. Despite the losses of their own homes, both firefighters and police officers continued to serve the public at great personal risk. California Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger toured the devastated areas and visited evacuation centers. He said, “I played at being a hero in the movies. These firefighters are the real heroes.”

Many of the trees in the San Bernardino National Forest had fallen victim to years of drought and overgrowth, as well as to the pine bark beetle infestation. The same ecological disaster hit much of the vegetation throughout Southern California. This situation exists in other parts of the West. Combined with high air temperatures and the Santa Ana winds, the stage was set for catastrophic wildland/urban interface (W/UI) fires. The “biomass,” which is the overgrowth of trees and other vegetation, is a direct result of a lack of natural or prescribed burning that is required for healthy forests that do not burn catastrophically.

During the past few decades, environmentalists prevented forest-thinning projects from taking place. This has resulted in the growth of forest-choking biomass that is the tinder and fuel for massive, uncontrollable wildfires. The environmentalists were afraid of thinning the forests to death. Now, they have watched the forests burn to death. And, 19 civilians and one firefighter are also dead, about 3,500 homes and businesses are in ashes, and 750,000 acres were consumed at a loss of over $1 billion. (As an aside, during the height of the fires, there were three earthquakes in Simi Valley. One quake measured 3.6 on the Richter scale. Enough already!)

The Southern California fires were and still are a human tragedy. They were and still are life-altering events. The aftermath and total losses will be felt for years to come. The rehabilitation of 750,000 acres of burned land is daunting. What lessons will be learned from it all? Will President Bush’s Healthy Forests Initiative and the National Fire Plan help to prevent such fires in the future? (To look at the National Fire Plan and the 10-year Comprehensive Strategy, go online to

These types of fires can happen in many areas of this country. Will firefighter preparedness for W/UI fires finally become a priority issue with the structural fire services? Will the wildland fire agencies work closer than ever with the structure fire services?

Maybe both firefighting services should take another look at W/UI standard operating procedures, especially as they relate to structure protection during extreme fire behavior incidents. Too many firefighters have received serious burn injuries or have become statistics after being overrun by fire while attempting structure protection assignments. Life safety of firefighters is the number-one priority.

May this be a wet winter to help heal our thirsty forests. Let’s hope the fire season of 2004 is a gentle one with zero firefighter fatalities.

Robert M. Winston, a Firehouse® contributing editor, is a 33-year veteran of the fire service and a retired Boston Fire Department district fire chief. He is a wildland/urban interface and structural fire service presenter and adjunct college instructor. Winston can be contacted at 928-541-9215 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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