Firefighting and disaster response agencies learned from the disastrous Cedar Fire of 2003 and scaled up resources, adapted policies and advanced their communication systems.
Policies have changed since the Cedar Fire
At the time that it occurred, the 2003 Cedar Fire was the largest wildfire in California’s history.
Its acreage has only been exceeded in recent years. Pushed along by Santa Ana winds, the Cedar Fire burned terrain at a phenomenal rate. It covered 29 miles between midnight of Oct. 25 and 10 a.m. on Oct. 26. By approximately 8:30 a.m. on Oct. 26, the fire had made its way from Cleveland National Forest to Scripps Ranch. The extensive damage caused by the fire prompted action on several fronts.
Firefighting and disaster response agencies took what they learned from the challenging conditions posed by the Cedar Fire and scaled up resources, adapted policies and advanced their communication systems.
The timing of the Cedar Fire posed a unique resource challenge. The fire was first reported to the Monte Vista Emergency Command Center at 5:37 p.m., and for safety reasons helicopters were not authorized to operate at that hour. In acknowledgment of this limitation, San Diego Fire-Rescue now owns three helicopters that have been adapted to drop water at night if circumstances require it. The helicopters have specially trained pilots to fly them.
The military can be a tremendous resource during fires and according to the San Diego Fire Department, since the Cedar Fire the approval process for use of military planes and helicopters has been expedited. To ensure effective coordination between city and state firefighters and the military, Cal Fire now trains with Navy and Marine pilots at Camp Pendleton.
Many other advancements have been made in the areas of emergency response, such as the development of a regional cooperative dispatch system that locates firefighting resources and ambulances based on availability and proximity. In practice, this would mean that for those residents of Scripps Ranch who live closer to the Poway fire station, Poway could easily be called upon to help.
There has also been a response within the Scripps Ranch community. Following the Cedar Fire, Scripps Ranch residents Kristin Rayder and Jerry Mitchell decided to form the Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council (SRFSC). The council’s primary goal is to educate the Scripps Ranch community about fire safety and prevention, however, it has also been involved in innovative evacuation planning. Working with the Department of Homeland Security, the San Diego Fire Department and the San Diego Police Department, the SRFSC has developed maps which have served as a conceptual model for all of San Diego County. They were distributed – and updated maps are coming.
“We worked three whole years,” said SRFSC President Kristin Rayder of their collaboration with the different departments. “It was really an exciting endeavor because they came up with great ideas and they produced a huge map of Scripps Ranch so we could figure out how many people lived where, how many cars [there are], and then provide the most efficient escape route for everyone.”
Rayder also spearheaded the development of a safety evacuation system. The system involves tagging houses with different colored flags, with the intention of saving firefighters time and effort.
“If you have self-evacuated then you put a yellow door hanger on the door to let the police know they don’t have to waste time going up to your door and trying to evacuate you because you’ve already left,” Rayder explained. “If you put a red door hanger on your door, or you have your neighbor do it, then they know they need to come and help you because you can’t evacuate. Then we have the blue door hanger to let them know you have a pool in your backyard and we’re free to access your water.”
Since the Cedar Fire, there have been a number of advances in fire safety at the state, regional and community level. The responsibility also lies with individuals, though, because the majority of fires are human-caused. Rayder reminds residents to be mindful of suspicious activity and potential arsonists.
“If something doesn’t feel right about someone’s behavior, call 911 and report it, because it’s better to be embarrassed or overly cautious,” she said.
Fire safety tips for Scripps Ranch residents
By Heather Karpel
From full-scale research studies to the experiences of local neighbors, there is much to be learned and shared about fire safety. Dr. Jon Keeley, senior research scientist with U.S. Geological Survey, and Kristin Rayder, president of Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council (SRFSC), have some facts to share with residents — and some of them are direct from this area’s fire history.
Dr. Keeley has been studying fires for more than 40 years. He was on the ground in Scripps Ranch after the Cedar Fire and has been consulted by Cal Fire and the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources on the most recent wildfires. His current focus is on how climate affects fire regimes (fire regimes are the patterns associated with specific ecosystem over time), and how this varies across California.
Keeley has published research on factors that made communities vulnerable, or resilient, during the Cedar Fire and others that occurred around that same time.
“We compared what the homes looked like relative to the homes that didn’t burn prior to the fire and we evaluated what characteristics were associated with homes that burn versus those that don’t, and the ones that burn,” Keeley said. “The only characteristic we found consistently significant was whether or not they had a tree overhanging their house and, of course, that’s got to be a concern to people in Scripps Ranch.”
The thing to note here is that it was not typically the tree itself that burned in this scenario. It was the dead litter that dropped off trees hanging over roofs. They were ignited when embers were blown onto the roofs.
“That’s an important message because it tells us there are things you can do,” Keeley said. “You can get out there in the summer and clean off your roof and get rid of all the dead litter.”
One thing Keeley suggested is to use small mesh in vents in the roof because the temperature difference between the outside and inside causes embers to be drawn through attic vents.
Another piece of advice Keeley offered is to keep at least 10 to 15 feet of space between shrubs as a general rule. More specific parameters can be evaluated on an area by area basis.
Rayder of the SRFSC wanted to emphasize a fact about Spanish tile roofs that she learned from a resident’s experience. Spanish tile roofs are known for being more fire resistant, however, to be effective the ends need to be capped so that the embers can’t get underneath and reach the wood.
The California Conservation Corps is assisting the SRFSC with Scripps Ranch’s fire planning. They advised clearing dead grass, sticks and logs from underneath eucalyptus trees because of the “ladder effect” in which fuel on the ground carries fire from the base of the tree upwards.
“The one thing that’s helpful is their [eucalyptus] leaves kill grass,” Rayder said. “You’ll never see grass under a eucalyptus because nothing can grow, but if you do have stuff that dies underneath you have to get rid of it. Also, go up a few feet and make sure that’s taken care of as well.”
Both Rayder and Keeley emphasized the role that the public plays in prevention, and the importance of awareness and vigilance.