February 22, 2024
The Cedar Hearth crosses Interstate 15, forcing drivers to show away. Photograph by way of Wikimedia Commons

The Cedar Hearth was a recreation changer.  

For the San Diego area, it will turn into a shared time of concern and stress.  When it started that early Saturday night evening 20 years in the past nobody might have imagined what a pricey lesson the wildfire would supply, for firefighters, residents — and the information media.

Journalists who coated the wildfire say it’s an occasion that also haunts them.

For 2 girls, certainly one of whom remains to be within the information enterprise, it stays so terrifying an expertise that after they see video from the hearth or recall their roles in reporting on it, they really feel one thing akin to PTSD, the post-traumatic stress dysfunction that afflicts individuals who have skilled a harmful or harrowing occasion.

Intense around-the-clock protection of the Cedar Hearth would start on Sunday morning, Oct. 26 because the skies stuffed with smoke, and it continued by Nov. 5 when the hearth was declared contained. Nobody knew then — not the media nor the hearth companies — that they might quickly be examined like by no means earlier than.  

It began at 5:37 p.m. within the Ramona space, the place the hearth, later supercharged by Santa Ana winds, roared out of the Cuyamaca Mountains, destroying pine forests together with acres of chaparral and oak woodland. It was a blitzkrieg with speeds as much as 3,600 acres an hour.  

By Sunday morning it had already destroyed houses and killed folks in Lakeside and it continued on its path. The preliminary U.S. Forest Service efforts would have little impact because it pushed westward.

There was no notification system then to alert the media or the general public, as there’s now. The primary member of the media to study of the hearth was an in a single day project editor at NBC7 who heard the scanner site visitors of firefighters. Information Director Greg Dawson remembers his editor, Chuck Westerheide, calling him round 4 a.m. and telling him he higher are available in.

“I don’t suppose I went again house for various hours till Thursday,” Dawson stated. “One of many recollections that sticks with me, it was most likely round 9:30 a.m. or so, our project desk stated the hearth had reached Scripps Ranch. I stated it have to be a separate, new hearth as a result of there isn’t any means a fireplace might go from Ramona to Scripps Ranch in a couple of hours.

“I made the desk examine again with the hearth division a number of instances to verify earlier than we went on air with the data. That was the second after we all knew how unhealthy it was going to be. We obtained on the air with steady protection within the early morning hours as a result of we had an everyday weekend morning present with employees already working.”

Dawson remembers abruptly seeing Mike Stutz, then the information director of 10News, showing on digicam at that station informing viewers what was occurring. “Ever since, I’ve joked that when the information director has to go on air, it’s a nasty day and I by no means need that to be me,” Dawson stated.

Stutz had seen the native NBC broadcast and was flying solo early on, updating on air and on the identical time calling employees in. What could be days of scrambling to cowl the hearth had begun because it did for all different media within the area. 

For a tv information director, any catastrophe is pressure-filled since you’re overseeing the logistics of steady, stay newscasts from the sector. In 2003, this was a serious endeavor as it required consistently shifting vans, automobiles, cameras and reporters as the hearth moved. 

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

“I feel probably the most haunting video I bear in mind was from Sky10 flying over Scripps Ranch, merely terrifying as we watched a complete subdivision going up in flames,” Dawson stated.

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

“I bear in mind waking up at daybreak and seeing smoke and haze blanketing the world,” he stated. “I instructed my spouse, ‘I’m going to work and also you most likely will, too.’”

His spouse, Barb Fiorina, was an workplace supervisor for the San Diego Purple Cross and was typically concerned in catastrophe aid efforts. 

“I jumped into the bathe and shortly heard the cellphone ringing; it was the station calling me in. Throwing my hearth gear into my automotive, I hurried down to satisfy a photographer at a Scripps Ranch buying heart. We had been to go to the East County to cowl the hearth. However inside minutes we noticed flames barreling over the mountains and already threatening houses on the south facet of Pomerado Highway.

“I known as the desk and instructed them the hearth was coming to us and that we had been diverting to a vantage level right here. We broadcast from one location for some time, then moved north and west a number of instances seeing neighbors hosing down the home or storage subsequent door, then throwing some garments and valuables into the trunks of their very own automobiles to struggle the gridlock to get to I-15.

“One household allowed us onto their third ground balcony, the place we reported on the wall of flames rolling towards us; the exploding tree fireballs that sailed by the sky and onto MCAS Miramar Air Station.”

Greg Gross, of The San Diego Union-Tribune had been scheduled to work a later shift beginning at midday. However when he noticed the primary TV information broadcasts he headed to work, leaping on 1-15 south, and the site visitors was useless stopped.

“Most of us on employees who had been working normal project, within the bureaus or the Breaking Information Group had seen our share of wildfires,” he stated. “However I don’t suppose any of us had seen something fairly like this. Even right this moment, driving south previous Miramar, I can nonetheless see these flames flying throughout the freeway.

“A large tongue of flames was lashing overhead, over the freeway, the whole freeway, and beginning to singe the perimeters of Miramar MCAS. I knew then it was going to be an extended day.”

Gross’ position that day was to take feeds from numerous reporters within the area after which meld all of it right into a lead information story.

“Some, we heard from shortly, with grim particulars of complete neighborhoods being overrun and destroyed,” he stated. “Others had been delayed in getting their studies again as a result of they, together with firefighters, had been making an attempt to maintain from being overtaken by fast-moving, towering partitions of fireside. A whole lot of time was spent simply making an attempt to maintain observe of area groups and ensure they had been alive.

“Unbeknownst to me, members of my circle of relatives in Scripps Ranch needed to flee their house as hearth ran up the canyon behind their house and burned down their fence, however someway spared the home. Later, I’d see the row of scorched eucalyptus bushes within the neighborhood, like big burnt matchsticks.” 

Chris Jennewein, who led the newspaper’s new on-line website, SignOnSanDiego.com, recalled that site visitors spiked as readers sought updates. The staff shortly started a stay weblog with the most recent updates, a brand new sort of protection that’s now routine for main information occasions.

“Fortunately we had a spare net server in storage and shortly introduced it on-line to deal with the site visitors,” stated Jennewein. “We later gained an On-line Information Affiliation award for the modern stay weblog.”

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

“All of a sudden, two static San Diego County Sheriff’s helicopters took off,” he recalled. “Then Sheriff Kolender murmured, ‘What the hell is occurring.’ At that time, nobody knew,” Farrar stated.

On Sunday morning when he awoke, “I regarded out the again and noticed nothing however an eerie orange sky with ash raining down. I went to my entrance door of my apartment advanced, and I noticed a very ash-covered swimming pool.” 

He remembers a midday information convention the place the San Diego Hearth Chief, Jeff Bowman, uttered 4 troublesome phrases — “We are able to’t cease it.”

“Bowman stated the hearth wouldn’t cease till it reached La Jolla. He was severe. I believed it was a joke. In different phrases, the Pacific Ocean could be the one strategy to put out the flames.”

Farrar spent most of his time on the Cal Hearth command publish at Cajon speedway in El Cajon. He lamented that the know-how on the time was outdated.

“Different hearth models from Wyoming, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico got here to assist, together with firefighters from Northern California. However there was one massive downside: staging and strategically placing engines and boots on the bottom. No company might speak to the opposite as a result of everybody had completely different frequencies.”

Maria Villalobos, a producer for Good Morning America remembers “I drove my very own automotive up the hills close to Ramona. I’m driving up the hill and to my proper the hearth is burning. The flames are exterior my window, and for a number of minutes I’m driving a couple of ft from the hearth. I used to be very scared. To this present day I all the time suppose how vital it’s to be nicely rested and to maintain my thoughts as alert as doable for moments like these.”

Charles  Landon
Charles Landon protecting the Cedar Hearth.

Photojournalist Charles Landon of CBS News8, talks concerning the challenges of getting the video he wanted to inform the story of the wildfire’s development.

“With nobody to bounce concepts off of you possibly can simply end up in over your head,” he stated. “First I rolled off some photographs from the freeway.”

Then he moved inland “and located a bunch of firefighters defending the Catholic Church and numerous homes all within the helter skelter strategy of evacuating. The overriding impression I attempt to convey to folks about brush fires is their surreal nature. Mix flames, wind, smoke and the sounds of brush burning after which add within the evening and being by yourself. There’s nothing prefer it, a world unto its personal. Simply you and the madness.”

Jeff Freeman, a freelance photojournalist, remembers the logistical challenges of getting the video he had shot to ABC Information after a day’s price of capturing.

“Interstate 15 was closed from someplace in North County into Mission Valley,” he stated. “We used our press credentials to get a CHP officer to permit us to make use of I-15 to get to our satellite tv for pc feed level. As we drove south on I-15, it was smoky, visibility was solely about 75 ft. It was so eerie, grime and particles in all places. 

“We had been passing NAS Miramar and tumble weeds rolled proper in entrance of us, the wind was blowing our van all around the street. I shot a bit of the drive on the abandoned freeway, and it grew to become the open for World Information Tonight that night — exhibiting a distinct facet of San Diego.”

ABC Information despatched Freeman to Scripps Ranch as nicely to cowl a staff of San Diego firefighters. He remembers particularly one harrowing scenario the place the firefighters did the whole lot they might to save lots of a minimum of some belongings from a burning house.

“The wind was so robust there was little they might do,” he remembers. “As one two-story home in entrance of their truck began to burn they usually realized they might not put it aside, they broke into the house and tried to get the model new automobiles out of the storage. They may not discover the keys so that they grabbed a couple of photos and different treasured gadgets which they returned to the owners after the hearth destroyed the home and left nothing to salvage.

“I’m all the time amazed on the kindness of firefighters in such tense, harmful conditions,” stated Freeman.

Photojournalist Lee Louis from 10News was additionally a reserve officer on the time for the San Diego Police Division, and he remembers the information station calling him in to work.

“The project desk was saying I wanted to come back to work. I instructed them, ‘Sorry, I’m in a police uniform in the course of the hearth space and may’t depart.’”

He notes that at the moment San Diego Hearth-Rescue had the personnel able to go struggle the hearth however no strategy to get them to the blaze, a weak spot that has since been addressed. He remembers being together with his then associate, Officer Clinton Fort, patrolling in a police cruiser with four-wheel drive.

Lee Lewis
Lee Lewis monitoring the wildfire.

“The dispatcher got here on the air asking for any area models with a 4WD and directed us to go to the Tierrasanta space to load a bunch of six firefighters into our truck mattress and take them to the hearth space to satisfy with hearth engines.”  

As the hearth progressed that first lengthy day of reporting, 10News reporter Steve Fiorina’s anxiousness elevated as he did his job whereas additionally making an attempt to get the most recent info on his personal neighborhood and residential.

“My own residence was within the path of that huge firestorm and I believed to myself that it will quickly be gone,” he remembers. “Then we noticed the wind shift and the firestorm modified course. My spouse joined the Purple Cross help staff whereas I used to be on the air all day and into the evening. We and lots of pals had been formally evacuated, shifting from one home to a different; finally 4 households at one home that first evening. 

“Greater than 30 of my pals misplaced their houses that Sunday however not one of the folks I knew had been killed or injured. We had been blessed to outlive the Cedar hearth — as we had been 4 years later when the Witch Creek hearth slammed by. 

“The reminiscence of these roaring flames remains to be vivid and so are the recollections of how so many individuals got here collectively within the days, weeks, and months after to assist with clean-up and rebuilding. Friendships had been shaped and thrive to this present day.”