20 Years Ago This Week, the Massive Cedar Fire Tested Firefighters, Residents and Media

Cedar Fire
The Cedar Fire crosses Interstate 15, forcing drivers to turn away. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

The Cedar Fire was a game changer.  

For the San Diego region, it would become a shared time of fear and tension.  When it began that early Saturday evening night 20 years ago no one could have imagined what a costly lesson the wildfire would provide, for firefighters, residents — and the news media.

Journalists who covered the wildfire say it’s an event that still haunts them.

For two women, one of whom is still in the news business, it remains so terrifying an experience that when they see video from the fire or recall their roles in reporting on it, they feel something akin to PTSD, the post-traumatic stress disorder that afflicts people who have experienced a dangerous or harrowing event.

Intense around-the-clock coverage of the Cedar Fire would begin on Sunday morning, Oct. 26 as the skies filled with smoke, and it continued through Nov. 5 when the fire was declared contained. No one knew then — not the media nor the fire agencies — that they would soon be tested like never before.  

It started at 5:37 p.m. in the Ramona area, where the fire, later supercharged by Santa Ana winds, roared out of the Cuyamaca Mountains, destroying pine forests along with acres of chaparral and oak woodland. It was a blitzkrieg with speeds up to 3,600 acres an hour.  

By Sunday morning it had already destroyed homes and killed people in Lakeside and it continued on its path. The initial U.S. Forest Service efforts would have little effect as it pushed westward.

There was no notification system then to alert the media or the public, as there is now. The first member of the media to learn of the fire was an overnight assignment editor at NBC7 who heard the scanner traffic of firefighters. News Director Greg Dawson recalls his editor, Chuck Westerheide, calling him around 4 a.m. and telling him he better come in.

“I don’t think I went back home for more than a few hours until Thursday,” Dawson said. “One of the memories that sticks with me, it was probably around 9:30 a.m. or so, our assignment desk said the fire had reached Scripps Ranch. I said it must be a separate, new fire because there is no way a fire could go from Ramona to Scripps Ranch in a few hours.

“I made the desk check back with the fire department several times to confirm before we went on air with the info. That was the moment when we all knew how bad it was going to be. We got on the air with continuous coverage in the early morning hours because we had a regular weekend morning show with staff already working.”

Dawson recalls suddenly seeing Mike Stutz, then the news director of 10News, appearing on camera at that station informing viewers what was going on. “Ever since, I’ve joked that when the news director has to go on air, it’s a bad day and I never want that to be me,” Dawson said.

Stutz had seen the local NBC broadcast and was flying solo early on, updating on air and at the same time calling staff in. What would be days of scrambling to cover the fire had begun as it did for all other media in the region. 

For a television news director, any disaster is pressure-filled because you’re overseeing the logistics of continuous, live newscasts from the field. In 2003, this was a major undertaking as it required constantly shifting trucks, cars, cameras and reporters as the fire moved. 

Asked what part of this weeks-long effort impacted him most? It was a liveshot being fed back to the station and out to the audience.

“I think the most haunting video I remember was from Sky10 flying over Scripps Ranch, simply terrifying as we watched an entire subdivision going up in flames,” Dawson said.

10News reporter Steve Fiorina, who lived in Scripps Ranch, recalls that Sunday morning vividly.

“I remember waking up at dawn and seeing smoke and haze blanketing the area,” he said. “I told my wife, ‘I’m going to work and you probably will, too.’”

His wife, Barb Fiorina, was an office manager for the San Diego Red Cross and was often involved in disaster relief efforts. 

“I jumped into the shower and soon heard the phone ringing; it was the station calling me in. Throwing my fire gear into my car, I hurried down to meet a photographer at a Scripps Ranch shopping center. We were to go to the East County to cover the fire. But within minutes we saw flames barreling over the mountains and already threatening homes on the south side of Pomerado Road.

“I called the desk and told them the fire was coming to us and that we were diverting to a vantage point here. We broadcast from one location for a while, then moved north and west several times seeing neighbors hosing down the house or garage next door, then throwing some clothes and valuables into the trunks of their own cars to fight the gridlock to get to I-15.

“One family allowed us onto their third floor balcony, where we reported on the wall of flames rolling toward us; the exploding tree fireballs that sailed through the sky and onto MCAS Miramar Air Station.”

Greg Gross, of The San Diego Union-Tribune had been scheduled to work a later shift starting at noon. But when he saw the first TV news broadcasts he headed to work, jumping on 1-15 south, and the traffic was dead stopped.

“Most of us on staff who were working general assignment, in the bureaus or the Breaking News Team had seen our share of wildfires,” he said. “But I don’t think any of us had seen anything quite like this. Even today, driving south past Miramar, I can still see those flames flying across the freeway.

“A massive tongue of flames was lashing overhead, over the freeway, the entire freeway, and starting to singe the edges of Miramar MCAS. I knew then it was going to be a long day.”

Gross’ role that day was to take feeds from various reporters in the field and then meld it all into a lead news story.

“Some, we heard from quickly, with grim details of whole neighborhoods being overrun and destroyed,” he said. “Others were delayed in getting their reports back because they, along with firefighters, were trying to keep from being overtaken by fast-moving, towering walls of fire. A lot of time was spent just trying to keep track of field teams and confirm they were alive.

“Unbeknownst to me, members of my own family in Scripps Ranch had to flee their home as fire ran up the canyon behind their home and burned down their fence, but somehow spared the house. Later, I would see the row of scorched eucalyptus trees in the neighborhood, like giant burnt matchsticks.” 

Chris Jennewein, who led the newspaper’s new online site, SignOnSanDiego.com, recalled that traffic spiked as readers sought updates. The team quickly began a live blog with the latest updates, a new type of coverage that is now routine for major news events.

“Luckily we had a spare web server in storage and quickly brought it online to handle the traffic,” said Jennewein. “We later won an Online News Association award for the innovative live blog.”

KOGO radio station’s Phil Farrar was emceeing a fundraiser that Saturday night for San Diego Countycrime Stoppers.

“Suddenly, two static San Diego County Sheriff’s helicopters took off,” he recalled. “Then Sheriff Kolender murmured, ‘What the hell is going on.’ At that point, no one knew,” Farrar said.

On Sunday morning when he woke up, “I looked out the back and saw nothing but an eerie orange sky with ash raining down. I went to my front door of my condo complex, and I saw a completely ash-covered swimming pool.” 

He recalls a noon news conference where the San Diego Fire Chief, Jeff Bowman, uttered four troublesome words — “We can’t stop it.”

“Bowman said the fire would not stop until it reached La Jolla. He was serious. I thought it was a joke. In other words, the Pacific Ocean would be the only way to put out the flames.”

Farrar spent most of his time at the Cal Fire command post at Cajon speedway in El Cajon. He lamented that the technology at the time was outdated.

“Other fire units from Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico came to help, including firefighters from Northern California. But there was one big problem: staging and strategically putting engines and boots on the ground. No agency could talk to the other because everyone had different frequencies.”

Maria Villalobos, a producer for Good Morning America remembers “I drove my own car up the hills near Ramona. I am driving up the hill and to my right the fire is burning. The flames are outside my window, and for several minutes I am driving a few feet from the fire. I was very scared. To this day I always think how important it is to be well rested and to keep my mind as alert as possible for moments like these.”

Charles  Landon
Charles Landon covering the Cedar Fire.

Photojournalist Charles Landon of CBS News8, talks about the challenges of getting the video he needed to tell the story of the wildfire’s progression.

“With no one to bounce ideas off of you can easily find yourself in over your head,” he said. “First I rolled off some shots from the freeway.”

Then he moved inland “and found a group of firefighters defending the Catholic Church and various houses all in the helter skelter process of evacuating. The overriding impression I try to convey to people about brush fires is their surreal nature. Combine flames, wind, smoke and the sounds of brush burning and then add in the night and being on your own. There is nothing like it, a world unto its own. Just you and the insanity.”

Jeff Freeman, a freelance photojournalist, recalls the logistical challenges of getting the video he had shot to ABC News after a day’s worth of shooting.

“Interstate 15 was closed from somewhere in North County into Mission Valley,” he said. “We used our press credentials to get a CHP officer to allow us to use I-15 to get to our satellite feed point. As we drove south on I-15, it was smoky, visibility was only about 75 feet. It was so eerie, dirt and debris everywhere. 

“We were passing NAS Miramar and tumble weeds rolled right in front of us, the wind was blowing our van all over the road. I shot a little of the drive on the deserted highway, and it became the open for World News Tonight that evening — showing a different side of San Diego.”

ABC News sent Freeman to Scripps Ranch as well to cover a team of San Diego firefighters. He recalls in particular one harrowing situation where the firefighters did everything they could to save at least some belongings from a burning home.

“The wind was so strong there was little they could do,” he remembers. “As one two-story house in front of their truck started to burn and they realized they could not save it, they broke into the home and tried to get the brand new cars out of the garage. They could not find the keys so they grabbed a few pictures and other precious items which they returned to the homeowners after the fire destroyed the house and left nothing to salvage.

“I’m always amazed at the kindness of firefighters in such tense, dangerous situations,” said Freeman.

Photojournalist Lee Louis from 10News was also a reserve officer at the time for the San Diego Police Department, and he remembers the news station calling him in to work.

“The assignment desk was saying I needed to come to work. I told them, ‘Sorry, I’m in a police uniform in the middle of the fire area and can’t leave.’”

He notes that at that time San Diego Fire-Rescue had the personnel ready to go fight the fire but no way to get them to the blaze, a weakness that has since been addressed. He remembers being with his then partner, Officer Clinton Castle, patrolling in a police cruiser with four-wheel drive.

Lee Lewis
Lee Lewis monitoring the wildfire.

“The dispatcher came on the air asking for any field units with a 4WD and directed us to go to the Tierrasanta area to load a group of six firefighters into our truck bed and take them to the fire area to meet with fire engines.”  

As the fire progressed that first long day of reporting, 10News reporter Steve Fiorina’s anxiety increased as he did his job while also trying to get the latest information on his own neighborhood and home.

“My own home was in the path of that massive firestorm and I thought to myself that it would soon be gone,” he remembers. “Then we saw the wind shift and the firestorm changed direction. My wife joined the Red Cross assistance team while I was on the air all day and into the night. We and many friends were officially evacuated, moving from one house to another; eventually four families at one house that first night. 

“More than 30 of my friends lost their homes that Sunday but none of the people I knew were killed or injured. We were blessed to survive the Cedar fire — as we were four years later when the Witch Creek fire slammed through. 

“The memory of those roaring flames is still vivid and so are the memories of how so many people came together in the days, weeks, and months after to help with clean-up and rebuilding. Friendships were formed and thrive to this day.”