In October 2003, Southern California was ravaged by wildfires fueled by Santa Ana winds. From Oct. 21 to Nov. 4, there were 14 major fires burning from as far north as Santa Barbara County to as far south as the U.S.-Mexico border. Dubbed the “2003 Firestorm” or “Fire Siege of 2003,” it scorched more than 750,000 acres, destroyed thousands of homes and killed 24 people.
Fire officials have called it the "most devastating wildland fire disaster in state history."
But while the firestorm's emotional effects linger, the changes it wrought in the state's fire preparedness bode well for the future.
The biggest wildfire in California history
San Diego’s Cedar Fire – the largest ever recorded in California – was perhaps the largest conflagration of the firestorm. At the time it started, San Diego had sent many of its resources north to help battle other wildfires. So when the region was confronted with its own wildfire, it found itself strapped for resources.
Brian Fennessy, the assistant chief of fire operations with the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department, said the Cedar Fire burned a record-breaking 100,000 acres in less than 10 hours.
“Quite honestly, it caught us by surprise, because we’ve never seen or heard of a fire move that quickly, across that much terrain, in that short a period of time,” said Fennessy.
It moved so fast that most residents had no warning before the flames were threatening them.
“Firefighters were no longer in a fire suppression mode, they were in a life-saving rescue mode,” Fennessy said. “It was no longer ‘do what you can to protect the structures’ it was ‘do what you can to get these people out and to a place of safety.”
The Cedar Fire lasted more than a week and scorched more than 200,000 acres in San Diego County, killing 15 people and destroying thousands of homes.
But some of the damage can’t be measured through numbers or statistics.
A lasting emotional toll
Tom Helmantoler was a high school teacher in Julian at the time. He said the quaint mountain town – best known for its apple pie – was devastated by the Cedar Fire. Helmantoler also had property in Scripps Ranch – a San Diego suburb also threatened by the wildfire. But it is Julian that brings him to tears.
He hasn’t discussed the fire in years, but said he remembers the smell of burned wood that lingered over the town, which borders the Cleveland National Forest.
“It’s something, once you’ve been through a situation like this, you don’t forget it,” said Helmantoler. “It’s a very mind-changing view, and you look at what’s important.”
Helmantoler’s house was spared, but hundreds of other homes were not so lucky. Of the more than 200 students at his school, 38 lost their homes. He saw erratic behavior emerge in some of them and says the after-effects of the fire could be likened to post-traumatic stress.
“We even called them the fire survivors,” Helmantoler said. “I don’t think anybody could go through and lose what any of these 38 kids lost and not be affected in the long run.”
He said the silver lining is that at least no one in Julian died. And the town center was saved.
“The night the fire came to the town – and I remember seeing it on the front page of the paper the next day – I was told there were was many as 200 fire trucks in Julian, which is a small village, said Helmantoler. “And they literally saved the town."
Lessons learned from the 2003 wildfires
Since the 2003 firestorm, fire departments throughout Southern California have increased training for firefighters and obtained additional fire engines and helicopters. But it’s a statewide system that has really made a difference.
Dale Hutchinson is the southern region chief for Cal Fire. He says the state is better prepared to fight fires now, after beefing up their mutual aid system, conducting statewide training and taking advantage of ever-improving technology.
An example is the life-saving early warning notification system that calls people to alert them about potential disasters – some call it Reverse 911. Or the controversial fire prevention fee, which is designed to pay for brush clearance and fire education in certain rural parts of the state. And an overall better use of predictive tools – like weather forecasting – that can help anticipate fire behavior. They also attack fires more aggressively from the start.
But Hutchinson said it is the coordination between fire agencies that really makes the difference – even in an area like Los Angeles, which has robust city and county departments.
“Even L.A. city, L.A. County, as large of a fire department as they are, you have to understand, you have these large dynamic incidents and not any one agency can handle them,” he said.
Hutchinson also said advanced technology has not only helped firefighters battle wildfires, it helps civilians. He said the proliferation of smart phones and iPads makes information readily available, which helps keep the public aware of fire conditions and movement.