Firestorm 2003: The story of a disaster (2023)

Under the setting sun of a windy Saturday in late October, the desperation of a lost hunter sparked the largest wildfire in California history.

From its nondescript beginnings in the rugged, trackless wilderness of the Cleveland National Forest, the Cedar Fire roared across the county with incredible speed, leaving a 28-mile trail of destruction in its first 14 hours.


At nine o'clock, the Paradise fire was lit near the ValleyCenter. Together they devoured a twisted wasteland larger than the sprawling metropolis of Los Angeles.

They killed at least 16 people. More than 2,400 houses collapsed into piles of rubble. Tens of thousands fled to hotels, gyms and friends' houses. More than 100,000 were left without electricity and telephone service.

Now, many people are wondering if the Cedar fire could have been put out sooner, or at least prevented from doing as much damage. In the stunned aftermath, communities contemplate sweeping changes in public policy:

Changes in the way local agencies fight fires. Changes in the way authorities manage chaparral-carpeted slopes and oak-pine forests. Changes also in how and where people choose to live in one of the most fire-prone environments in the world.

San Diego County could buy tanker trucks and raise taxes to pay for them. Numerous rural firefighting districts may be amalgamated into one countywide superdistrict. Wood shingle roofs could be banned. State and federal agencies can launch an aggressive campaign to reduce vegetation. And new rules for construction in the interior of the country may emerge. But all these are "could".

For now: This is the story of the 2003 San Diego County firestorms, compiled from numerous interviews as well as records from the US Forest Service, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the San Diego US Department of Forestry. county sheriff.

DAY ONE: Saturday, October 25

In the beginning

NORTH COUNTY — Hurricane Hell started with a spark from a stray hunter, fire officials say.

Dehydrated, disoriented and separated from his partner, Sergio Martinez, 33, of West Covina, wandered for hours Saturday in the rugged Cedar Creek Falls area of ​​the Cleveland National Forest.

At 4:32 p.m. m., the companion gave up looking for him and called his cell phone for help.

When the orange ball of the sun fell in the western sky, Martinez also withdrew. He lit a signal fire to highlight his location against the rapidly darkening landscape.

The missing person's call was relayed to San Diego County Sheriff's Deputy Dave Weldon, a helicopter pilot who was rescuing an Alzheimer's patient in Oceanside. Weldon headed east.

As he did so, Herb Haubold, who lives in the rural enclave of Barona Mesa near the woods, noticed the smoke. He called 911.

Haubold was told: “We know; It's no big deal."

the first signs

It turned out to be flickering, embryonic flames from the largest wildfire in California history. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) later set the Cedar Fire start time at 5:35 p.m. m.

The calls began to arrive.

At 5:38 p.m., a cyclist reported the fire on his cell phone.

At 5:43 a.m., a second 911 call was received from the ranch-style community of San Diego Country Estates, 10 miles east of Ramona.

A minute later, the Federal Aviation Administration transmitted a fire report from an airline pilot.

When Weldon arrived at 5:50 p.m. m., he also called. The flames covered half a football field. He radioed for helicopters and tankers from the Ramona airport.

“It wasn't going very well at the time,” he said.

But with the wind blowing, Weldon feared things would get out of hand. He knew that a helicopter couldn't do much. But a well-placed tanker takedown can put it out.

No aircraft left the ground.

At 5:53 p.m. m., a dispatcher for the US Forest Service said federal rules prevented anyone from taking off.

A 20 acre start

Just before sunset, at 6:05 p.m., Weldon landed his helicopter in 12-foot-high chaparral. He and his partner Rocky Laws made their way to Martinez, who was unable to walk. They led him back through thorny bushes. They put him in the helicopter.

"He said he thought he was going to die," Weldon said.

Martinez was asked if he started the fire. He denied it, then muttered that he was "sorry about it all."

Having brought the hunter to safety, Weldon took off. He radioed that the fire was now 20 acres. It was 18:09.

At the time, 40 miles southwest in downtown San Diego, another sheriff's helicopter pilot, Deputy Gene Palos, was on his way to a Crime Stoppers event in Balboa Park. His helicopter had a 100-gallon bucket.

at least one gesture

Palos dipped his bucket into the El Capitan Reservoir, which was on the trail, and then ran toward Cedar Creek. He thought he had time for four drops.

“I don't know if it would have made a difference, but it was worth a try,” Palos said.

Five miles away, a dispatcher ordered him to "move over." This was at 6:17 pm.

Officials from the California Department of Forestry and the US Forest Service later said that state and federal rules prohibit firefighting planes from flying more than 30 minutes before sunset. On that dry and windy day, the sun set at 6:06 pm.

At 5:36 p.m. m., a minute after the Cedar fire was reported, it was too late to fly.

Officials said the rule was made for a reason: so pilots don't crash to their deaths, starting new fires in the process. They insisted that the air droplets would not be enough to put out the fire.

the accumulation

Although nothing was happening in the air, there was a lot of activity on the ground.

"Within two minutes after the fire was reported, 10 engines, two-handed crews, two tankers and two lead officers were dispatched to the fire," said Joan Wynn, a spokeswoman for the US Forest Service and a team of firefighters from various agencies. investigating the response to the San Diego County wildfires. .

Within half an hour, six Forest Service chiefs and 320 firefighters were searching for the flames.

At 6:19 p.m. on Saturday, a call was made for more help: 15 crew members, two water tanks and a fire truck.

Around the time that sheriff's deputies cited Martinez for carelessly starting a fire in dangerous conditions (he was not convicted), firefighters headed to the San Diego Rivercanyon. They thought they had a chance to stop Cedarthere.

“The fire raged across 20 acres over several hours,” said RichHawkins, chief of fire management for the Cleveland National Forest.

remembering inaja

But Hawkins, who lives in Fallbrook, had a bad feeling about it. The flames were growing in the same direction as the disastrous 44,000-acre Inaja fire in November 1956, which caught firefighters and killed 11 of them.

“That weighed heavily on our minds that night,” Hawkins said.

The flames were at least half a mile from the nearest dirt road, he said. Firefighters could only get there from the east, from PineHills and Julian.

The fire was at the bottom of the canyon. This was concerning because many firefighter casualties occur when the fire rages uphill. Hawkins was not about to send men and women into an area from which they could not escape.

“There was no safe way, without violating every firefighting protocol out there, to fight the fire,” he said.

Instead of going through the tall grass, firefighters waited for the flames to get closer to the road.

“There was no immediate threat to the communities, or so we thought,” Hawkins said. "No boss dreamed that this fire would spread to the city of San Diego."

discreet at first

At the North County Times in Escondido, reporter JoMoreland was writing a summary, a very short story, to update readers on a Camp Pendleton fire that was nearly out and to point out the new fire.

“He told me that the fire department was concerned about the new fire because conditions were dangerous and someone should check in on Sunday morning,” said Phil Diehl, the editor on duty. “I thought little of it at the time.”

At 6:41 p.m. m., authorities said the fire was not being influenced by the wind. He was holding on to 20 acres.

But an updated weather forecast warned that after midnight, winds would pick up to 35 mph from the east and gust to 50 mph.

At 10:00 p.m. m., the 20-acre fire had grown to 100 acres.

At 11:22 p.m., authorities planned voluntary evacuations from SanDiego Country Estates. Twenty-six minutes later, they changed their minds; evacuations would be mandatory.

DAY TWO: Sunday, October 26

The arrival of Santa Ana

Around midnight, Santa Ana roared out of the desert, gusting up to 70 mph. All hope of containing the flames was lost in a wooded triangle, bounded by Eagle Peak Road to the west and north, Cedar Creek Road to the south, and Boulder Creek Road to the east.

The suddenly raging Cedar Fire crossed the San Diego River and rushed toward the 10,000 residents of the United States. A finger ran south through the canyon toward El Capitan Reservoir.

Once again, the sheriff's helicopters took off. This time to warn of danger. At 00:09, the mandatory evacuations were not effective.

At approximately 1 o'clock, the flames marched from the San Diego River to the Estates, a distance of two miles.

At 1:16 a.m. the first house in the 26700 block of Matlin caught fire.

Half an hour later, authorities notified Barona Casino operators that the fire was headed their way and said they may want to evacuate.

A flame called paradise

As if the nightmare that was unfolding wasn't scary enough, at 1:30 am. it got much worse.

Another wildfire was reported 25 miles to the northwest near Paradise Creek Road on the Rincon Indian Reservation. The cause was unknown.

The winds weren't that strong there, but they did reach 35 mph at times. From the beginning, firefighters had a difficult time keeping up with what would become known as the Paradise fire.

“He was getting ahead of himself,” said a forestry officer, Battalion Chief Kevin O'Leary. “That was the hardest thing to follow. He detected fires a quarter of a mile, half a mile ahead of the main fire.

Up to 10 points burned at the same time.

Immediately, the firefighters realized that the situation would be difficult and threw everything on the fire. Within an hour they ordered a total of 65 fire trucks.

“We didn't know when we would get them because the Cedarfire was exploding,” O'Leary said.

sinister events

For a brief moment, at 3 am, there was progress. Firefighters stopped the march west of Paradise in the rural farming community of Valley Center, where the rich and poor live side by side.

But two things troubled them.

The fire was in the Paradise Creek drainage, spreading north and south. And they knew that sooner or later the force of Hurricane Santa Anas, which had turned Cedar into a firestorm, would hit Valley Center.

Then the firefighters filled the pre-dawn air with the wail of horns and sirens, warning of danger.

At that moment, a neighbor knocked on the front door of the Morphews' home on Yellow Brick Road. Nancy Morphew, 51, answered the door and, proud to have her own ranch, told her neighbor to help others. She ran to check on the horses.

She never came back. She was one of the first victims of the San Diego County fire.

"I never said goodbye," said her husband, Steve Morphew.


Back at San Diego Country Estates, Jim and Melanie Piva woke up at 2:30 a.m. to the smell of smoke and the sound of screaming.

“Firefighters could be heard yelling: ‘Get out! Get out!'” Melanie Piva said.

Pivas did not leave. They thought his cul-de-sac home was protected from the 50-foot-high flames by the local golf course. They watched and waited.

“It was really scary for a while,” he said. “Every time the wind blew too hard, it would catch fire like someone had a blowtorch.”

At approximately 3 a.m. Sunday, the Cedar reached Wildcat Canyon Road southwest of the Estates. At 3:09 am a report came in of four people trapped in a house. At 3:31 am, a woman reported that her father was not leaving.

Not long after that, that finger of cedar stretching south reached Lisza Pontes' Lakeside home. Her family woke up at 3:45 am, surrounded by superheated flames. They ran to the car.

Where were you

“We were literally running through fire,” Pontes said. “I was getting wet towels. The fire was at our feet. It burned above our heads and burned everywhere.

It didn't get better in the car.

“We had to go through this,” Pontes said. As he was doing so, a neighbor's trailer home exploded in a ball of fire.

Around 5 a.m. m., gamblers were still trapped inside the Barona Casino as flames pressed Poway miles to the west.

At 6:15 a.m., a family was trapped in the 14900 block of Moonglow Drive in San Diego Country Estates. But the information was incomplete. The person he called had hung up.

At 6:30 am, Sally Garant evacuated a sister from Ramona. Later, Garant would return to her own home in Scripps Ranch, only to find authorities evacuating the street from her.

Someone called to report a fatality at 6:50 am. The phone went dead before an address was provided.

At approximately 7:40 a.m., a Cedar edge crossed Marine Corps Air Station Miramar.

Around 8 am, assistance from San Diego Gas & ElectricCo. was needed: a fire truck was trapped behind downed power lines. The storm would end up leaving 110,000 customers in the dark.

was real now

Around this time, Santa Anas came to Valley Center. With 70 mph winds now pushing at it, the Paradise was no longer a wildfire. It was a real firestorm.

“It moved at incredible speed from Paradise Creek to Paradise Mountain,” O'Leary said.

The burning embers jumped a mile and a half over Lake Wohlford, from the north side to the south side, and kept going without missing a beat.

“We were all in awe of what he was doing,” O'Leary said.

What he was doing was horrible. As Paradise roamed the community, he reduced $700,000 mansions to piles of rubble. He left piles of ash where rows of modest mobile homes once stood.

With flames spreading in all directions, local sheriff's supervisors called all deputies within reach. They met at the Valley Center station to come up with an evacuation plan.

They never got a chance to execute it.

the children

Within minutes, the sky turned from pale blue to black as night. The drivers turned on their headlights and sped away. In one car, all four tires were on fire.

At 8:30 am, the strategy meeting ended abruptly. An officer burst into the room and yelled, "The fire is behind the station!"

The Paradise's speed took everyone by surprise, including Red Cross volunteers who set up a temporary evacuation center overnight at the high school across from the sheriff's station. They struggled to evacuate the evacuation center.

Around that time, John Roach from Valley Center arrived in a white van.

He fell to his knees. Her children were in a car that had not left in the midst of smoke and fire as thick as blinding fog. She begged the officers to search for them.

Nearby, one of his children was dying.

Unable to find a patrol car amid the melee, Deputy Jake Jucenas, a 21-year law enforcement veteran with wispy hair, left with Cpl. Juan Tamayo on foot.

They searched for the children.

Keep in touch

At Station Road, they encountered 20-year-old Allyson Roach, badly burned and disoriented. Tamayo guided her to an ambulance.

With the trees burning like Roman candles and sagging in the wind on either side of the road, Tamayo and Jucenas were at a loss. It was getting hard to breathe. Very difficult.

It was then that Jucenas remembered having learned to stay glued to the ground in the fire. He crept in the direction he thought he had come from, and in the direction of his mate's voice. Tamayo was calling him. He could barely breathe.

“The fourth time I called him, I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach and knocked the wind out of me,” Tamayo said.

Somehow they found each other.

Somehow, too, 22-year-old Jason Roach managed to escape.

But her 16-year-old sister, Ashleigh, isn't. The fire claimed the life of an award-winning Irish dancer who, hours earlier, had attended an annual fall event at Valley Center High School.

“It was kind of ironic that God would call her home the day after prom,” said her mother, Lori Roach.

No Exit

At 9:30 a.m. m., a Santa Clara County fire marshal, who had been diverted en route to the Cedar fire, asked a Valley Center resident for directions.

“They didn't give us any maps,” he said.

At 10 am Sunday, O'Leary, Valley Center's no-nonsense professional fire chief, had a decision to make.

The fire consumed Canal Road and flames blocked the only other route out of Paradise Mountain, a community of 450 single-family homes. Of particular concern were 440 seniors at Sky Ranch, a retirement community.

There was no time to warn. There is no time to evacuate. No Exit.

And yet, in every direction there was chaos.

Some neighbors released the horses. When a horse fell, breaking its leg, a neighbor shot it dead. People crowded near the water tower on top of the mountain.

But O'Leary's team was not leaving. With half a dozen firefighters gathered around him, he hatched a plan. He sent 20 engines up the hill.

“Let's go up and stay there,” O'Leary said. “Sky Ranch is a priority because of the seniors. Let's secure them in place.

They erected a line of fire of humans and trucks between the hilltop community and hell.

skip the road

Meanwhile, 20 miles to the south, the Cedar fire was marching toward Poway. But that wasn't enough to persuade Everett Siehe, 51, to leave his home on Sycamore Canyon Road when Poway Fire Chief Bob Krans knocked on the door at 9 a.m.

Siehe had seen this before, four times in fact. And he had cleared a lot of vegetation around his house. He stayed despite Krans' urgent warning that not even 100 firefighters could stop Cedar's relentless advance.

An hour later, as football fans were settling in to watch the first NFL games of the day, fire tore through the Scripps Ranch neighborhood in eastern San Diego and then shot toward Tierrasanta.

It jumped three wide, multi-lane freeways: Interstate 15 and Highways 52 and 163. It went through Marine Corps Air Station Miramar to Interstate 805.

Authorities closed several major highways, including Highway 67 between Ramona and Lakeside. They closed the regional air traffic control center of the Federal Aviation Administration in Miramar.

The hub handles the majority of air traffic at major airports in Southern California, including Los Angeles International, Ontario International, and San Diego International (LindberghField). Their evacuation, and the smoke, brought regional air travel to a standstill. Flights were cancelled, diverted or delayed by several hours.

Those shaking ceilings

When the monstrous Cedar invaded Scripps Ranch, the situation seemed hopeless.

A woman fell to the sidewalk at 10:47 a.m., crying into her cell phone: “I can see the flames getting bigger. And no one can erase it.

At 11:15 a.m., the fire reached Estrada do Pomerado. It stretched from eucalyptus trees on one side to a second grove of Australian dry trees on the other. Dozens of houses quickly caught fire. Fire in the City of San DiegoCapt. Joe May noted that they were all topped by a wood shingle roof.

Running for a hose, Capt. Mike Moses shook his head and said that rattling roofs should be banned.

Sheriff's deputies passed. They ordered people to drop small garden hoses that were no match for 100-foot-tall walls of flame.

"Get in your vehicles and get out now!" they shouted through the speaker of a four-wheel drive.

the domino effect

At 11:40 a.m. Sunday, on Loire Court in Scripps Ranch, a house exploded like a bomb. The roof collapsed and a blast of hot air hit neighbors and reporters across the street. Inside the garage, the aerosol cans exploded like grenades.

At noon, the roof of another house collapsed after burning for a few minutes.

As houses fell like dominoes, firefighters sprayed their neighbors with fire-retardant foam.

When the winds changed direction at 1 pm, the police ordered everyone, the last stubborn neighbors, all the journalists, to come out.

It was during this time that a Cedro sapling arrived in the ElCajón-Alpino area. He went on a rampage north of Interstate 8 and threatened to cross. At 1:14 p.m. this happened.

At approximately 2:30 a.m., the fire headed toward Harbison Canyon.

without respect

The cedar fire did not discriminate. Without sparing even the county's most prominent residents, he destroyed the six-bedroom home of Rep. Duncan Hunter, the Republican who chairs the powerful House Armed Services Committee. The only thing that survived was an old van. Hunter estimated it was worth about $500.

As the flames spread, residents crowded together and headed east. Hundreds of people stopped at El Centro's motels and hotels, soon filling them up. The late-arriving refugees headed for Yuma, Arizona.

Many dogs and cats were smuggled into hotel rooms after being told pets were not allowed.

Back in San Diego County, by noon, evacuation shelters had sprung up everywhere. Qualcomm Stadium, site of Monday night's soccer game scheduled to take place in just over 24 hours, has become a temporary sanctuary for thousands of people.

hidden getaways

By early afternoon, the Paradise fire was advancing toward Escondido on several fronts.

As thousands fled the beleaguered Valley Center and Wohlford Lake and blocked the road into the city from the northeast, others gathered at the eastern ends of Washington Avenue and East Valley Parkway to watch. The fire spread over the ridges and descended towards the town. urged evacuees to go to Escondido High School.

At 5 pm, Kelly Fullerton handed out roses to cheer up the evacuees.

During the afternoon, volunteers from the Escondido Humane Society rescued 200 cats and dogs from danger. They had just opened a shelter to replace the one destroyed by fire in January 2001.

About 700 horses were evacuated Sunday from farms in ValleyCenter, Ramona and other locations and brought to the Del Mar Fairgrounds. Ordinary horses became refugees in the stables of champion thoroughbreds.

school exit

In the middle of the afternoon, Karen Jobe, superintendent of the ValleyCenter-Pauma Unified School District, ordered the closure of the nine local schools on Monday.

School officials in the Ramona, Escondido, Poway, San Dieguito, San Marcos, Vista, Del Mar, Solana Beach, Rancho Santa Fe and San Pasqual districts did the same. So do community colleges and county courts.

By the end of the day, nearly 3,000 firefighters had joined the battle.

As night fell, Governor Gray Davis declared a state of emergency in San Diego and Los Angeles counties, building on previous declarations for San Bernardino and Ventura counties. He appealed to President Bush to issue federal statements.

Murphy's Orders

Several times Sunday night, San Diego Mayor Dick Murphy took to television to update a fire-weary county. He urged residents to reduce water use to avoid lowering the water pressure needed for the shooting.

He urged city employers to keep non-essential workers home Monday.

He called on the NFL to cancel Monday night's football game between the San Diego Chargers and Miami Dolphins. He was announced as the returning linebacker Junior Seau. Now, no one cared.

The game was moved to Tempe, Arizona.

Strangely, the fires blanketed much of San Diego County with blizzard-like puffs of ash. The drifting particles helped paint what some have described as a startlingly colorful sunset in late October.

DAY THREE: Monday, October 27

taking to measure

By Monday morning, the scale of the disaster was coming into focus.

At a press conference, Sheriff Bill Kolender stated, "Without question, this is the worst fire tragedy I've ever seen."

President Bush declared San Diego and other fire-ravaged Southern California counties as disaster areas. This opened the door for victims to obtain low-interest loans for reconstruction.

With the winds subsiding, tankers took to the skies to bombard the twin flames of Cedar and Paradise. Helicopters also flew.

Shortly after noon, the governor joined Murphy on a tour of the devastated neighborhoods. Davis had two words for what he saw: "Beyond belief."

on-site employees

Joining top officials from San Diego and California was state insurance commissioner John Garamendi. He described the state assistance programs available. He also warned residents to beware of thieves and thieves.

Insurance agents from various companies scattered across the smoking fields.

At 11 a.m. m., the Paradise fire came dangerously close to the San Diego Wild Animal Park in Escondido, forcing the park to close and the animals to relocate.

At 11:30 a.m., about 15 miles to the northwest, another fire broke out on Highway 76 and Interstate 15 near Fallbrook. Threatened 270 homes in Lake Rancho Viejo. It was quickly sprayed by aircraft.

On Monday afternoon, Poway residents returned to burned-out neighborhoods. They wore soot-stained clothing, face masks, and scarves to cover their faces against a smoky sky that made the sun look like an orange dot on a gray weathervane. Along the way, they came across the bodies of hundreds of dead raccoons, rabbits, deer, birds and mice.

The neighborhood

Around noon, a stunned Amy Moore stared, arms folded, at the smoldering remains of the house she rented on Garden Street. A few meters away, stood a house.

A street over, JoAnn Brown gasped when she noticed a 30-foot-tall eucalyptus tree still standing, unharmed. It showed star-shaped leaves dressed in autumn colors.

But to the north, at Valley Center, the flames were still so hot that rocks erupted into rocky fireballs.

At Paradise Mountain, the location of the stand determined to save the elderly, the fire doubled and launched another attack as the winds changed direction. More than 3,000 Valley Center residents were once again evacuated.

Many of those who returned to their homes in Valley Center that day should not have. They maneuvered around barricades and barricades. They took secondary roads. Some walked past the sheriff's deputies.

Warnings and discoveries

Frustrated by occasional bouts of lawlessness, officials resorted to threats of arrest. Grant Pelzer, who lives on Paradise Mountain Road, was having one.

“He said we would go to jail if we didn't go now,” Pelzer said.

But those who managed to elude the authorities were not happy with what they found. Chimneys cutting through piles of rubble. A 9 iron golf club outside what was once a front door.

To the south, in Poway, it was the residents who kept people out.

Around 1 p.m. On Monday, someone posted yellow police tape on Whitewater Drive. It wasn't the police. They were neighbors tired of the endless stream of stares.

“People are looking at this like they're looking at a Christmas light display,” said Gary Ray, watching as car after car made a U-turn.

Davis' critics

At 4 p.m., Hunter, the congressman who lost his home, joined County Supervisor Dianne Jacob and Rep. Jay LaSuer, also from East County, in criticizing Davis on the radio. They also appeared on television.

Over the airwaves, they delivered a scathing critique of the governor's handling of the disaster. They accused him of delaying in seeking permission from federal authorities to use military firefighting aircraft.

Leveraging his influence as chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Hunter said he had obtained permission to use C-130 tankers from Colorado Springs, Colo., at noon Sunday. All Davis had to do was ask.

the show

In a conference call with reporters at 4:30 pm, administration officials said it wasn't that simple; under state rules, Sacramento had to run out of options to bring in private jets first.

Davis' press secretary, Steven Maviglio, accused San Diego County politicians of staging a "political side show."

Dallas Jones, director of the State Office of Emergency Services, went further. "Frankly, they're all wet," Jones said.

Government officials preferred to talk about the 50 fire trucks each driving in Arizona and Nevada, which were on the way. That was fine, local officials said, but the worst is over.

“Fortunately, today we have news that more resources are coming in to fight the fire,” Jacob said. "Unfortunately for some, it's too little too late."

an empty record

As of 6 p.m., state fire departments said Cedar had grown to 206,000 acres. This made it the largest in San Diego County history, larger than the 175,000-acre Laguna fire in 1970. Cedar was close to the state record.

At the end of the day, the number of four wildfires in San Diego County was 585 homes and 288,000 acres. In other words, the flames combined to blacken an area the size of Los Angeles.

At 7pm. On Sunday, the San Diego County coroner confirmed 12 dead. Several victims have been identified. Most had been overcome by fire.

Also later in the day, firefighters began making small inroads against Paradise, which is listed as 15 percent contained. The monstrous Cedar was still out of control.

Meanwhile, the number of customers without power has grown to 70,000. But San Diego Gas & Electric workers were already hammering poles into the still-smoky ground.

And people noticed.

Hastily scrawled “thank you” signs on sheets, cardboard signs, and car windows were everywhere. Thank you SDG&E. They thanked the firefighters, police officers and telephone operators. They thanked everyone who could think of.

DAY FOUR: Tuesday, October 28

everywhere the smoke

On Tuesday it was difficult to see the sun. It was hard to see anything.

It was also difficult to breathe.

Strong northeasterly Santa Ana winds have subsided. This reduced the threat of fire in besieged urban areas. It also opened the way for a massive air strike.

But calm conditions and a temperature inversion blanketed NorthCounty in a blinding, suffocating haze of smoke and ash. Inversions occur when rising warm air sits on top of cooler air and impedes movement. It's a recipe for capturing pollutants close to the ground. And that's exactly what this one did.

The smoky skies sent air quality readings beyond what the instruments were designed to measure. Readings in some places were often considered dangerous.

In Escondido, you could barely see the other side of the street.

Schools, courts and businesses closed because of it. Sony Electronics in Rancho Bernardo, which employs 2,500 people, closed its entire factory.

Parents kept children inside. People with asthma and other respiratory problems filled doctors' offices and hospitals.

hellish mountain

But in the mountainous interior, the air still moved. Now in the other direction.

Strong southwesterly winds drove further advances of the Cedarand Paradise fires into dense Coulter and ponderosapine forests, much of which was destroyed by bark beetles.

The fire devastated the 25,000-acre Cuyamaca Rancho State Park between Descanso and Julian, destroying cabins and park buildings.

The world's only Cuyamaca cypress forest on the slopes of the 6,512-foot-high Cuyamaca Peak was badly affected.

Finished with the park, Cedar set her sights on Julian, the county's quaint mountain playground known for its delicious apple pie. But that's where county officials and firefighters drew a line in the sand.

ugly percentage

Meanwhile, winds are spreading the Paradise fires toward Highway 76 and densely forested Palomar Mountain, home to another San Diego County icon: the Palomar Observatory.

As of Tuesday night, the Cedar Fire was recorded at 210,000 acres. It was still burning out of control. Crews thought they could contain the fire before November 5. They also feared that it could merge with the Paradise fire and trap an entire group of firefighters.

Paradise reached 40,000 acres.

Together, the four wildfires burned 12% of San Diego County.

FIFTH DAY: Wednesday, October 29

relief and tragedy

On Wednesday, the city's residents got what they wanted: relief from the sweltering smog with cool, humid air from the Pacific.

This did not help the firefighters entrenched in the mountains. There, gentle coastal breezes turned into 35 mph winds, pushing the flames against Julian, Henshaw Lake and Palomar Mountain.

Tempers were high among hundreds of firefighters in Julian after they removed a cedar arm from the rustic village overnight.

Worse yet, the firefighters suffered the loss of one of their own.

Steve Rucker, 38, a firefighter/paramedic who came from the Northern California city of Novato to help, was trying to save a home near Wynola, northwest of Julian, when the wind shifted. He and three colleagues were hit by a wave of fire.

the comrades

The other three firefighters managed to take refuge in the house. Rucker was defeated on the porch.

“He just ran right over them,” said San Diego County Sheriff's Sgt. Conrad Grayson.

One of Rucker's colleagues, Captain Doug McDonald, suffered burns to 18% of his body. He was hospitalized at the UC SanDiego Burn Center, but is expected to recover.

The Cedar, responsible for 14 total deaths and 1,483 destroyed homes, grew to 251,000 acres. It was now officially the largest wildfire on record anywhere in California, having surpassed the 220,000-acre mark set in September 1932 by the Matilija fire in Ventura County.

Not far behind itself, Paradise has grown to 50,000 acres.

In good news, both the 46,000-acre Otay fire and the 9,000-acre Camp Pendleton fire have been fenced off.

SIXTH DAY: Thursday, October 30

Measure to Measure

Thursday's fog and light rain, which seemed to come out of nowhere, helped firefighters turn the corner. This helped them save Julian.

"I think most people see this as a miracle that God was involved in," said Hawkins of the US Forest Service.

For the first day since the flames ignited, no new deaths have been reported. And, Congressman Hunter noted, military aircraft have joined the fight.

But Thursday was a particularly sad day in North County, where the funeral was held for one of its first victims: Ashleigh Roach, 16, of Valley Center. More than 1,200 people attended a public memorial at the California Center for the Arts, Escondido.

a welcome rest

Together, the San Diego County flames charred an area nearly the size of neighboring Orange County. But his progress has slowed down significantly. Confident firefighters were finally gaining the upper hand.

“If it's there, it's hiding,” said Harry Seifort, battalion chief for the Julian Fire District.

The much lower temperatures and higher humidity played in favor of the firefighters. They took advantage and rushed to build miles of lines of fire.

“It's the truce we've been waiting for,” said Ray Snodgrass, deputy director of the CDF in Sacramento.

That didn't mean the fires were out. That meant there was finally an opportunity for some of the 5,000 firefighters battling the Cedar and Paradise fires to rest on creaky cots in big white tents while others continued to work. This meant that some teams from Northern California and other states could begin to return home.

But there was still a lot of work to be done. Climate change was an opportunity to build miles of much-needed lines of fire. Armed with axes, torches, and bulldozers, hundreds worked to clear a 5-mile-long front at the base of Palomar Mountain. Helicopters dropped water on fire points in the hills around Santa Ysabel, north of Julián.

And Julian residents were still not allowed to return to their homes.

However, as if to put an exclamation point on the positive turn of events, high humidity made it impossible for crews to fire along Highway 76.

“I can't burn today,” Captain Chris Post said. "Yesterday, I almost burned myself."

SEVENTH DAY: Friday, October 31

containment signals

On one particularly spooky Halloween, the once violent Cedarfire gave up on Julian.

Under cloudy skies, the fire headed east from Santa Ysabel. Hit the scorched area of ​​the summer of 2002 at Pinesfire. That huge swath of cleared forest, showing only small amounts of predominantly green vegetation and no accumulation of dead wood, blocked the Cedar's advance.

"The fire exploded and spread much faster than anyone could have predicted," Hawkins said, noting that it traveled 28 miles in the first 14 hours. “That fire would have burned at least half a million acres if it weren't for the Pines fire.”

The Cedar Fire was two-thirds contained and the Paradise Fire was 30% contained.

The end was in sight. The cold and wet weather was killing the once powerful flames.

Still, the week-long fires were 16 lives lost, 2,400 homes lost, and 400,000 acres of coal. By itself, Cedar had created 280,000 acres of vacant land, setting new municipal and state benchmarks for wildfires. At 57,000 acres, Paradise became the eighth largest fire in San Diego County history.

Domestic animals at the Escondidos shelter and exotic animals at the San Diego Wild Animal Park, as well as the retirement community at Paradise Mountain, were spared from the flames. The Morphews' horses and house were also spared. But that was little comfort to Steve Morphew.

“I have a house, but who cares,” he said. “This fire took my wife.”

And the firestorm was particularly devastating for the Roach family.

In addition to losing her loving and vivacious sister, Ashleigh, AllysonRoach continues to suffer in the hospital from her burns. The surgeries continue, according to a family website. In little good news, the amputation of her nose and ears was deemed unnecessary.

"She showed some signs of movement today: her eyelids fluttered and she coughed a bit," the family said Thursday on their website.

His family asked people to pray for a miracle.

Editors Gig Conaughton, Jeff Frank, Jennifer Kabbany, AdamKaye, Kenneth Ma, Katherine Marks, Scott Marshall, Dan McSwain, JoMoreland, Darrin Mortenson, Andrea Moss, Edward Sifuentes, PaulSisson and Erin Walsh contributed to this report.

Contact editor Dave Downey at (760) 740-3529

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