SAN DIEGO – Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of the start of the Cedar Fire, which killed 15 people and became the most destructive in the history of the state.
On Friday, city and county officials and firefighters will discuss the Oct. 25, 2003, wildfire at an event in Scripps Ranch where first responders will share memories. The fire scorched more than 273,000 acres and destroyed more than 2,200 homes before it was quenched weeks later.
The blaze started on a blistering hot fall day between Ramona and Julian when a lost hunter started a signal fire. The hunter was airlifted to safety, but the fire spread in hard-to-access terrain.
The fire consumed about 10 acres by sundown and remained relatively small well into the night. But strong Santa Ana winds sprung up after midnight, sweeping flames into Wildcat Canyon — between Lakeside and Ramona.
Most of the deaths occurred in and around the canyon area, many as the victims attempted to escape. Survivors later told of waking up to flames already on their properties.
Another finger of the fire raced into Scripps Ranch, where flames fed by combustible eucalyptus trees ravaged several neighborhoods. The westward march of flames went about halfway down the length of the runway at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar before they were stopped.
When the Santa Ana winds died down — replaced by a sea breeze — the flames roared east, devastating small mountain communities near Julian and Lake Cuyamaca and killing firefighter Steven Rucker, of the Novato Fire Department north of San Francisco. Rucker was one of hundreds of fire personnel from throughout the state dispatched to battle the Cedar Fire.
The East County mountains bear scars from the fire to this day, from denuded hillsides to huge stands of gray, broken trees standing on slopes near Lake Cuyamaca.
As bad as the Cedar Fire was, firefighters also had to deal with destructive blazes around the same time in Valley Center, east of Chula Vista and Camp Pendleton.
Another Santa Ana-driven firestorm broke out four years later when an electrical line fell. The blaze, now known as the Witch Creek Fire, then barreled into Rancho Bernardo, where hundreds of homes were destroyed. Several other wildfires broke in the area that fall.
For the Cedar Fire anniversary, no Santa Ana winds are predicted by the National Weather Service despite warmer temperatures expected heading into the weekend.