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10 Years After Cedar Fire: Lessons Learned And Stories Of Survival

October 8, 2013 1:25 p.m.

Sandra Younger, author, The Fire Outside My Window, survivor of the 2003 Cedar Fire.

Kelly Zombro, Deputy Fire Chief of Operations, CalFire

Related Story: San Diego Marks Tenth Anniversary Of Cedar Fire On Friday

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This year will mark the 10th anniversary of San Diego's Cedar Wildfire. Anyone who was here in 2003 will not be able to forget that raging fire which darkened the sky for day, made ash fall in downtown San Diego, burned blocks of homes in multiple communities, including Julian, wildcat canyon, Alpine, lakeside, and Scripps ranch. The fire even jumped the I-15 freeway. The fire caused a week of terror and loss for San Diego. It remains the largest wildfire in California history. A book that recalls those frightening days and what we've learned from them is out, written by one of the survivors of the wildfire, called the Fire Outside my Window. Sandra Millers Younger, welcome.

YOUNGER: Thank you. It's nice to be here.

CAVANAUGH: Also joining me is chief operations for CAL FIRE, Kelly Zombro thank you for being here.

ZOMBRO: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: So Sandra, where were you living in 2003?

YOUNGER: We were living in wildcat canyon and had only lived there really for about seven months. From inside the city limits. We first knew about the wire about 1:00 in the morning on October 26th. It was shortly after it had really broke know out of its point of origin in the Cleveland national forest and started making a run. And we woke up to a lot of smoke and wind. And we didn't know where it was coming from. So I'm a journalist, my instinct as you can imagine is to go find a source. And I called around and finally found someone at a nearby fire station who said no, this is not the Pendleton fire that had been burning for several days prior. This is a new fire in Ramona. But it's burning far to the north of you, away from you. So you're safe.

CAVANAUGH: So that was in the middle of the night.

YOUNGER: Yes.

CAVANAUGH: What happened as the fire moved toward your property?

YOUNGER: We had gone back to sleep, believing that we were safe. And by grace, we woke up about 3:00 in the morning, and that's when we saw these huge flames outside of our window across the canyon on the other side of the mountain. And of course at that point, we knew we were in danger. We had to leave. And we just started throwing things together and running for our lives.

CAVANAUGH: Now, the smoke from the fire was very thick. You were pretty close to it, and the wind was blowing your way. How were you able to make it out of wildcat canyon?

YOUNGER: Miraculously, we grabbed our dogs, a few photos off the walls and dresser and threw them in a laundry basket, jumped in our car and started driving down the mountain. And just as we left our house, the fire arrived at our house. So we already knew when we left we would probably lose our beautiful new house. And I thought it would be easy driving out. It was first clear, but then we hit the smoke. And it was so thick it was like being in an airplane looking outside the window into a thunderhead. I could not see but a couple of inches in front of my car, and I was screaming to my husband, I can't find the road. And keep in mind that this road is a very steep, narrow road cut into the side of a mountain. And I knew that if I drove off the edge, that would be the end of us. So my husband is yelling you're just going to have to remember where it is. And at that moment, the miracle happened when a bobcat jumped out of the brush. He was also running from the fire, right to my headlight, and picked himself off and dashed off into the smoke. And somehow I knew at a very deep level of knowing rather than thinking that he was on the road, and I followed him. And by the time I got to where he had disappeared into the smoke, I could see fire below me on both sides of the road, and I steered between those smears of red and orange flames onto the dart part in the middle that was the road. And that's how we found our way out.

CAVANAUGH: A number of your new neighbors didn't find their way out.

YOUNGER: We lost 12 of our neighbors in wildcat canyon within a mile of us. And they were doing exactly what we were doing at exactly the same time. And the fire got to them before they could make it out.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Sandra, you were in position at the San Diego County estates. Did you ever see a fire like that before?

ZOMBRO: No, no. Nothing even close to this. And I was not at the time one of our veteran -- the oldest guy that's been around or anything like that. But I'd been on several fires, and I'd seen a lot of devastation in my career. That completely was over the top.

CAVANAUGH: What was different about it?

ZOMBRO: The magnitude. We were escalating early, planning, thinking ahead, looking at where this could go, preparations with the sheriff's department, looking at what we needed to do and who we needed to notify, and what had to happen to make that happen. The coordination was there. We were in place. We had a lot of assets moving around with the sheriff's department specifically. And unfortunately I did know it was going to hit the country estates hard. I also knew it was going to hit Barona mesa. I realized that would happen in time. I did not realize that it was going to do what it did in the blink of an eye. It took everything that I knew about fire behavior off the charts. I never expected it to blow like that.

CAVANAUGH: Now, are the statistics tell some of the story. The cedar fire burned more than 280,000 acres, it destroyed more than 22 hundred homes, it killed 15 people including one firefighter. And Sandra, you spoke to over 100 people in writing this book. And you give us an idea of some of the experiences that they told you about in trying to escape this fire?

YOUNGER: Yes, the experiences were dramatic. And even though they ranged from just being evacuated to actually being burned in the fire, everyone who was involved was traumatized. The people who were evacuated were almost in worse shape than we were because they didn't know the fate of their home. We at least knew and that was a small comfort to have a little bit of knowledge rather than just being at the mercy of wondering. But I did talk with people from others some of my neighbors who had to jump into their swimming pools, watch their house burn 15 feet away from them, and then even had to leave the safety of the pool because the wind was blowing huge brands, just beams and giant objects in on top of them. And they were swimming with snakes and rats and rabbits that had all joined them in the pool. We were all reduced to survival mode.

CAVANAUGH: On an animal level almost.

>> Exactly.

CAVANAUGH: What about the people who hid in the corral?

YOUNGER: There was a group of 12 people in featherstone canyon, which is a couple miles up from Barona. And they were caught along with two deputies who trying to lead them to safety. The deputies had to take shelter in their cars. And 12 people and their horses hunkered down in another corral. And another miracle, they all survived. But they were exposed to the elements. They were just fortune that the flames themselves were far enough away that they couldn't get to them.

CAVANAUGH: Now, these are such bad memories, such a terrible time, why did you decide that you needed to write this book?

YOUNGER: I don't even know that I decided. I just -- it was like seeing that bobcat. I knew I had to do it. I was a journalist, I had been a journalist for my entire adult life, I knew how to do it, and it was very obvious to me, almost from that moment we drove out of the fire that this was my job in the wake of this regional catastrophe. And I felt almost a sacred obligation to tell the stories of the people who were not here to tell them themselves. So it was partly a professional opportunity that I saw. I thought as a journalist, I'll never have a bigger story dropped in my lab. And it was also an obligation and an honor and a privilege. No one else has documented this fire. It is a historic event. It is still the biggest wildfire in California history. I don't it will remain a pivotal moment in fire history and the history of San Diego.

CAVANAUGH: We always want to believe that there have been lessons learned, chief. So ten years since the cedar fire. How has wildfire protection changed here in San Diego?

ZOMBRO: It would take a lot longer time than this interview to cover all the things that have been improved. The Board of Supervisors have embraced providing protection. Providing support to volunteer companies, providing fire engines, water tankers and assets throughout the county. We've also got the sheriff's department, the reverse 911 that allows us to notify people in advance. That was exercised in 2007, very successfully. The 211 program that's out there for information for people. They can call it anytime to find out where the closures are and so on. All that is in concert with the county program and the things they have in place. So all of us are working closely together. It's not that those relationships weren't there before. But that sense of urgency wasn't there as much. We've got a lot of things out there. And some of the more interesting things, like the sheriff's department got the two helicopters, the city fire department has two hospitals now. None of that existed in 2003.

CAVANAUGH: Has Sandra's book jogged memories for you? Did it bring it back for you?

ZOMBRO: Yes, yes. And it's difficult. Take it very seriously. 12 people didn't make it that night. And it mattered to me a lot to know how those people perished. We did everything we could. And I know that in my heart. But it weighs on every one of us. We're firefighters. Our job is to save people. And we did everything we could. I have to reflect on the fact that of all the people, the thousands of people in the path of the cedar fire, fortunately it was 12, not thousands. So we have to look at the positive side of that.

CAVANAUGH: Sandra, you and your husband have rebuilt on the same piece of property. And some people might say why would you do that again, considering that the risk of wildfires still exists in the entire San Diego area, but especially in the backcountry?

YOUNGER: Yes, I know. A lot of people might think we were crazy. We went back because it was home. It was our home. And even though we'd only been there 67 months, are the reason we moved there to begin with was because we knew the moment we set foot on the property that it was home. And that's why I think anyone who rebuilt in the fire's footprint would tell you they went back. I'd like to think we're a little more savvy about the risk now. We're certainly more alert. But it is a risk to live there. I don't know that we'll live there indefinitely. There's always a risk no matter where you live. A fire or some other disaster. I worry especially about people in some of our city areas at the tops of canyons. I worry about the 52 corridor. I worry about Mission Hills. Anywhere there's open land is technically wildland/urban interface. And sometimes the people who live closer to civilization might think they're more protected. But I think the chief would also agree that there is an extreme risk there. Those people don't necessarily have the same clearance in terms of vegetation management that we know to do in the backcountry.

CAVANAUGH: Because you know that it's so absolutely crucial there. But we might get a little lax if we don't live back there. Chief, when you hear about -- when we hear about the conditions that sparked this cedar fire, and that it was different from any fire that you had experienced before, should we say that the cedar fire was unique, or should we expect to see another fire in coming years with as much intensity as the cedar fire?

ZOMBRO: As unique as it was, you'll find if you look back in history in this county that that fire is a repeat of several others. Anybody who's gone up to Julian and passed the inyuha memorial, you'll find that fire started very close to where the cedar fire started and spread into the exact same areas. And the fighters that were killed was during the wind reversal, just like on the cedar fire. The difference was although structures and lives weren't in front of the fire. Back in those days, it was firefighters that were lost. And that's a very broad example. We'd be foolish to think that this won't happen again in San Diego because if you think about the history some more, back in the '70s, I think 1970, the Laguna fire had been the largest fire in the State of California. San Diego was the trophy for the largest fire from 1970, and it replaced -- it was replaced with the 2003 cedar fire. So it would be very foolish for us to think we're done.

CAVANAUGH: A memorial to the victims of the cedar fire will be dedicated on October 26th at river park fire station No. 2 in Lakeside.