Scripps Ranch & The Cedar Fire
At 5:15 pm on the evening of October 25, 2003, a fire started near Cedar Creek in the Cleveland National Forest, 24 miles northeast of Scripps Ranch. Pushed by hot, dry winds gusting up to 40 miles per hour, the fire quickly became an out of control inferno — and raced toward San Diego.
The Cedar Fire reached Scripps Ranch at 8 am the following morning. With virtually no forewarning, the citizens of the community were rousted and directed by the San Diego Police Department to immediately evacuate.
Later, the San Diego Fire Department determined that this horrific fire destroyed 312 Scripps Ranch homes and the temporary buildings at Chabad Hebrew Academy, and damaged a large number of other Scripps Ranch homes. Many neighborhoods were devastated by the firestorm.
Due to the exceptional efforts of crews from the San Diego Fire Department, the US Forest Service and Calfire, the fire was prevented from moving deep into the neighborhoods north of Pomerado. In addition, many community members stayed behind and helped evacuate homes, saved numerous houses from burning, and assisted with traffic control.
Due to these efforts, no lives were lost in Scripps Ranch and the destruction was much less than it could have been. The Cedar Fire was the most devastating firestorm in California history, burning approximately 2,323 homes in the county and killing 14 people.
In typical Scripps Ranch style, amid the horror of the firestorm, there were amazing stories of a community that has not lost its spirit. Besides the many heroic people who saved homes, hundreds offered help to those displaced by the fire. Clint Carney, chief of police and Scripps Ranch representative in Councilman Maienschein’s office, walked each street and made a list of the destroyed homes to post on the SRCA website so residents could know the fate of their homes.
At a meeting held at St. Gregory’s two days after the devastation, an estimated 1,600 people came together to rebuild the community.
After the fire, the Scripps Ranch Recreation Center was turned into the Local Assistance Center, the SRCA put together Project Phoenix and a special Fire Relief Fund to help fire victims and the SRCA’s webmaster, Greg Minter, continually updated the SRCA’s website both during and after the fire to provide crucial information to the community.
St. Gregory’s acted as a clearinghouse for donations of clothing and other items, which were made available to fire victims.
Project Phoenix, a volunteer grassroots organization led by Bob Ilko, became a multitask effort to not only physically rebuild homes but to assist people throughout the county.
The goals of Project Phoenix were to make the SRCA website the place for information and awareness; gather displaced resident information to be able to contact them; take digital photos of damaged and destroyed homes; help with erosion control; help with the demolition and rebuild decision-making processes; be a clearinghouse regarding insurance information; partner with volunteer legal assistance; and use the Geographic Information System mapping to assist the city with protecting storm drains, preventing erosion and locating existing swimming pools.
Project Phoenix was a vehicle around which the community could rally. With the help of Councilman Brian Maienschein and the entire Ranch Project Phoenix was a smashing success and became a national model for all other communities to follow.
Channel 10 News honored three Ranch residents, Old Pros Rich Brown, Tim Forrey and Ray Calhoun, for spearheading efforts to provide food and comfort for those displaced by the fire. Rich Brown served more than 2,000 meals to fire-affected residents at St. Gregory’s. Tim Forrey and Ray Calhoun put together two cookouts for residents along Birch Bluff Avenue.
Chabad Hebrew Academy moved into its newly completed permanent buildings on November 10, 2003, just two weeks after the fire and losing all of the old temporary buildings, files and years of collected supplies in the firestorm.
By December 17, 2003, the City Council approved a plan to waive permit fees associated with rebuilding homes destroyed in the fire.
A small group of Wine Country residents led by Jerv Mitchell, a retired naval aviator, organized a non-profit organization called the Chimney Canyon Fire Safety Council. This was the first urban chapter of the California Fire Safety Council in San Diego County. The name Chimney Canyon came from a local fireman who, three days after the fire, told residents that had the fire entered their canyon 200 more homes would likely have been destroyed. Firefighters stopped the fire within 70 feet of entering their canyon. The Fire Safety Council’s initial mission was to remove the volatile ground fuel and create a firebreak for their neighborhood.
89 percent of homes destroyed by the fire had cleared their lots, including the slabs.
On January 20th, City Council approved new building code regulations to ban wood shake and wood shingle roofs and to require new structures in the city to have Class A roofs, which must be made of materials resistant to severe fire exposure. The new codes applied to roof repairs that encompass more than 25 percent of a structure’s roof area. The City referred the question of whether non-combustible roofs, such as concrete or slate shingles, should be required in High Fire Hazard Areas, for further study.
Volunteers operated Miles of Smiles, a community fire-relief project to help families affected by the wildfires rebuild their photo collections. People brought photos of fire-affected residents to Dingeman Elementary on February 6th, where they copied the photos for fire victims for free on copiers donated by Hewlett-Packard.
The SRCA recognized the men and women of the San Diego Fire Department and the San Diego Police Department as the SRCA Citizens of the Year.
Maria and Christos Karvounis were the first Scripps Ranch fire-affected family to move into their new home. They re-built their home exactly as it was before.
SRCA hosted a successful barbecue and meeting with Insurance Commissioner John Garamendi at Marshall Middle School, attended by around 500 people, where the Commissioner heard the community’s complaints.
That meeting led to a group of fire survivors, including Erik Strahm, Don Robinson, Susan Smith, Karen Reimus, and Adam Richardson of Scripps Ranch, going to Sacramento to educate legislators as to what happens to homeowners after a catastrophic loss and to lobby for changes in laws that protect homeowners.
This group of Scripps Ranch residents became known as part of the “Dynamic Dozen, ” twelve unrelenting and tireless volunteers who put in countless hours to ensure that future victims of disasters would not have to face the insurance issues faced by homeowners after the Cedar Fires. The five legislative bills designed to protect homeowners were known as the California Homeowners Bill of Rights.
The first fourteen Scripps Ranch residents graduated from the San Diego Fire Department Scripps Ranch Community Emergency Response Team (CERT) Training Program. These volunteers were trained to provide assistance in the event of a future disaster such as an earthquake, fire or terrorist attack. Resident Steve Walker worked with Battalion Fire Chief Bowlin to get the Scripps Ranch CERT the first official CERT within the city of San Diego, organized and functional as a trained augmentation to the fire department. The goal was to have 200 trained volunteers to help the thousands of Scripps Ranch residents. As of March 2005, Scripps Ranch CERT had 32 trained volunteers.
Jan Arbuckle and Cary Meyer formed a support group, the Burnout Sisters, for women that had lost their homes in the Cedar Fire. The group provided comfort, fellowship and shared information.
Project Phoenix Chair, Bob Ilko, was presented with the Channel 10 Leadership Award for his extensive community works in the aftermath of the Cedar Fire. Mr. Ilko helped evacuate his neighborhood, worked feverishly to help fire victims, whether it was regarding demolition, insurance issues or coordinating construction traffic. Bob also took the knowledge that he learned in Scripps Ranch and helped fire-affected residents in other areas.
The first reference to “fire folk” was made in the SRCA Newsletter. Unwilling to be considered fire victims, those Scripps Ranch residents whose homes were damaged or destroyed in the Cedar Fire decided to refer to themselves as fire folk. Wes Danskin coined the phrase because “I hate being called a victim, and I don’t like survivor much better. Despite the pain, it isn’t cancer or war. I am so pleased when I see fire folk used so pervasively in the press. The term honors the new group and the issues, without turning us into pitiful outcasts.”
Ten months after the Cedar Fire, 60 percent of fire-affected residents had permits to begin rebuilding, while another 17 percent have construction plans that were in the process of being approved.
The SRCA Fire Relief Fund distributed checks to displaced Scripps Ranch fire victims ($400 per family).
The Chimney Canyon Fire Safety Council was awarded two U.S. Forest grants totaling $224,000 to provide some 600 homes surrounding Chimney Canyon with a 100-foot firebreak. Unfortunately, the Chimney Canyon Fire Safety Council would have had to do the work prior to receiving the funding and as a result, had to turn down the award. The Chimney Canyon Fire Safe Council also submitted a plan to secure financing from a non-federal agency to reforest both sides of Pomerado Road under the supervision of the Park and Recreation Department.
USMC Helicopter Light Attack Squadron 169 based at Camp Pendleton made its second visit to Scripps Ranch Chimney Canyon area to help homeowners clear hazardous brush and deadwood. In each case, a street party followed the work to honor the squadron upon its return from the war zone. Affection between the groups was mutual as this Scripps Ranch neighborhood adopted the squadron.
The Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council proposed the creation of the 100-Acre Wood Project and solicited assistance. The majority of the mature eucalyptus trees in Carroll Canyon ultimately died following the Cedar Fire. The City was removing the dead trees and creating large open areas. If nothing were to be done, the dense eucalyptus groves would return during the next decade. The SRFSC proposed the 100-Acre Wood project as a concept for a long-range reforestation project intended to address this problem. The goal would be to transition the easternmost 100 acres of Carroll Canyon into a place with indigenous, drought tolerant, fire resistant, park-like groves maintained with community support, volunteers and city participation. The SRFSC was unable to garner sufficient support for the 100-Acre Wood Project and the concept was dropped.
82 percent of homeowners had permits to start rebuilding. A total of 87 percent of homeowners had submitted new home plans to the City.
On October 24, 2004, SRCA hosted a one-year anniversary of the Cedar Fire event entitled the “Community Unity: Scripps Ranch Stronger Than Ever” at Scripps Ranch Community Park. Hundreds of fire survivors and residents came together to spend a day in the park on the Sunday anniversary of the firestorm. There was food, games, and fun, as well as a chance to spend a day with family and friends. The event was a huge success as a result of the help of many community businesses and groups that donated funds, food, and services. Afterward, St. Gregory’s hosted a nondenominational community service.
The SRCA provided welcome mats to each of the fire-affected families as they moved back in. As of November 2004, they had distributed 10 welcome mats.
The night of November 15th saw numerous Scripps Ranch fire survivors staying up until almost midnight to deliver compelling testimony to the State Senate Insurance Committee, which had convened a special local investigatory hearing regarding the insurance problems 2003 wildfire victims experienced. In direct response to the stories of insurance failures, State Senate Insurance Chair Jackie Speier introduced Senate Bill Two, which is a homeowner’s insurance reform package.
The postmaster of the Scripps Ranch Post Office agreed to continue forwarding the mail of fire survivors for one more year.
The Chimney Canyon Fire Safety Council teamed with the SRCA, changed its name to the Scripps Ranch Fire Safety Council and extended its mission to the entire 12,000 homes in Scripps Ranch.
Fifteen months after the Cedar Fire, 90 percent of fire-affected residents had permits to begin rebuilding, while a dozen fire survivors had moved into their new homes.
The SRCA adopted the Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council project entitled “Elimination of Wildfire-Promoting Ground Fuel Throughout Scripps Ranch,” as the basis for developing their comprehensive communitywide plan of action. This three-to-five-year project provided a critical jumpstart for the initial removal of the large quantities of ground fuel still remaining in Scripps Ranch canyons and hillsides.
Approximately 20 percent of homeowners affected by the fire had moved back into their rebuilt homes.
County Supervisor Pam Slater-Price provided a $10,000 grant to be used to renovate Scripps Ranch hiking trails 12, 23, and 25. The work was performed by the state California Conservation Corps (CCC) under the guidance of the Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council. Gordon Boerner put in significant hours to obtain the grant and Jerry Mitchell was instrumental in organizing the restoration of the fire-damaged trails.
Approximately 50 percent of homeowners had moved back into their rebuilt homes.
During the SRCA’s anniversary Fourth of July celebrations, a flagpole was installed as a Cedar Fire Memorial in Hoyt Park with a marble memorial inscribed to the courageous citizens of Scripps Ranch. Children from families who lost homes in the Cedar Fire raised a flag from the U.S. Capitol on this pole. The Old Pros, including Jerry O’Meara, Dennis Downs, and Owen Fabert, were involved in organizing the establishment of the flagpole and memorial. The SRCA and Col. Bob Dingeman arranged for Congressman Duncan Hunter to provide a special flag that had flown over the Capitol for the ceremony.
To comply with the requirements of the US Healthy Forest Act, the Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council formed the Scripps Ranch Community Fire Safe Alliance. Twelve Federal, State, and Civic organizations pledged to collaborate in efforts to protect Scripps Ranch from future wildfires. Formation of this alliance qualified the Fire Safe Council for additional Federal funding to remove wildfire fuel in open spaces adjacent to homes.
The City Council approved revisions to the City’s brush management regulations, which included a citywide requirement for 100 feet of defensible space between structures and native wildlands. One of the goals of the new regulations was to make the standards consistent throughout the City and thus make enforcement more efficient. The new Code also permitted the use of goats for brush abatement within the City.
In part, due to the efforts of many Scripps Ranch fire folk including Karen Reimus, Senate Bill 2 (SB2) was signed into law by Governor Schwarzenegger on September 30, 2005. SB2 provided an extension of Additional Living Expense benefits to two years in cases of loss due to a declared state of emergency; placed limits on who could estimate the replacement value of a residence or from recommending coverage limits and made earthquake and fire mediation programs permanent.
The Burnout Sisters hosted “Home Again The Tour” on October 23, 2005, a tour of 11 rebuilt Scripps Ranch homes. More than 350 residents toured the homes and the proceeds of the home tour raised $16,696 for the American Red Cross.
Approximately 96 percent of homeowners had permits to start rebuilding and 64 percent had moved back home.
As the community marked the two-year anniversary of the Cedar Fire, many in the community launched a campaign to “Pay It Forward” and extend to Hurricane Katrina survivors the kindness and generosity they received after the Cedar Fire. St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church set up a relief center, similar to one created after the fire and donations were sent to Katrina victims.
The Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council had seven neighborhood chapters, each with a Fire Safe project underway or in planning. The chapters are: Chimney Canyon, Moselle, Eastglen, Wine Country Corner, Meadowdale, Miramar Ranch and a special chapter addressing the wood shake shingle roof problem.
Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council was awarded two grants from the U.S. Forest Service and would receive over $85,000 to assist neighborhood action groups to initiate fuel reduction projects in Scripps Ranch. Ultimately, the SRFSC was unable to obtain all of the numerous permits required from the City, Army Corps of Engineers, the Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Eventually, the City Wastewater Department did most of the work that the SRFSC had planned to do, and the SRFSC returned the funds to the California Fire Safe Council for assignment to another project.
Two and a half years after the Cedar Fire, 79 percent of homeowners had moved home and 96 percent had permits to start rebuilding.
July 1, 2006
The Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council utilized goats provided by Environmental Land Management, Inc. to reduce fire fuel in the community. This effort required two scientific studies: one by a Fire Behavior Analytic Company and the other by the County’s leading environmental biologist.
The first study determined that the firebreak in the wildland/urban interface area between our southernmost neighborhoods and the U.S. government property east of MCAS Miramar needed to be 200 feet wide to protect the community. After considerable deliberation, the City granted permits for the added width to the safety zones. The goats treated roughly an acre a day and worked in the Whispering Ridge-South and Central, Loire Valley and Birch Bluff project areas. The project took five months to complete and covered 82 acres. The project was funded entirely by the residents of the neighborhoods listed above.
September 25, 2006
The Local Fire Survivor Assistance Center located in the Information Center was closed due to the tremendous progress of the Scripps Ranch rebuilding process.
At the third anniversary of the Cedar Fire, 87 percent of homeowners had moved back home and 97 percent had permits to start rebuilding.
Jerry Mitchell, the chair of the Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council, was selected to receive the Channel 10 Leadership Award from KGTV.
Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council was awarded a $65,000 grant by the California Fire Safe Council to promote the establishment of more firebreaks with Scripps Ranch. With the new grant, the SRFSC could augment the funding of neighborhood firebreaks by up to 25 percent of the cost.
Scripps Ranch Cedar Fire survivors paid it forward and volunteered to be part of a unique “Fire Recovery Mentor Program,” in which Tahoe-Angora Ridge fire victims were matched up with a Scripps Ranch Cedar Fire survivor for emotional support and real-life insight into recovering from a total and catastrophic loss.
October 22, 2007
The outbreak of the Witch Creek fire a few days shy of the anniversary of the Cedar Fire forced Scripps Ranch residents to participate in a mandatory evacuation. People were able to return to their homes the next day. While the fire didn’t touch Scripps Ranch, neighboring communities of Poway, Rancho Bernardo and other areas of San Diego County were hit by the fire. Later, many Cedar Fire survivors and other Scripps Ranch residents helped provide assistance at the Ranch Bernardo Local Assistance Center after the Witch Creek Fire.
During the year, the Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council i) completed 100-foot fuel breaks for eight neighborhoods, which impacted 359 homes and 57 acres, ii) assisted with the formation of four new North County Fire Safe Councils in Rancho Bernardo, Rancho Penasquitos, Lake Hodges and Ramona and iii) launched an interactive computer program to assist homeowners in determining the actions they should take to prepare for the next wildfire.
The SRFSC continued its efforts to promote fire safety by participating in the Fire Safe San Diego Expo.
April 25, 2008
Scripps Ranch Fire Safety Council received a $97,200 federal grant to extend its Neighborhood Brush Abatement Program through 2009. A key factor in the award was the SRCA’s pledge to assist with in-kind matching funds. In all, 24 Neighborhood FSC chapters were formed. The School Board voted to approve new Scripps Ranch elementary school boundaries in connection with the upcoming move of the Ellen Browning Scripps Elementary School to the much larger facility at the old Marshall Middle School site. The School Board decision came after many months of community meetings and work by the Reboundarying Subcommittee of the SRCA Schools Committee analyzing various reboundary options.
Five years after the Cedar Fire, 306 homes had been rebuilt. Only six lots remained where families opted to relocate.
The City Council proclaimed October 14th as Karen Reimus Day to honor her for efforts to protect homeowners post-Cedar Fire. Karen had become a nationally recognized advocate for consumers obtaining fair representation and settlements from their home insurance companies based on her experiences from the Cedar Fire.
Under a FEMA grant awarded to the fire department for brush management, contract personnel removed large amounts of mature green eucalyptus trees in four areas of Scripps Ranch without proper coordination with the Scripps Ranch Maintenance Assessment District and left logs and debris on the ground. Interested residents led by Will Lofft formed Save our Scripps Ranch Trees to factually report on the activity taken and rally support to preserve the community’s signature trees. At the request of the SRCA and the Scripps Ranch Planning Group and many concerned residents, the City of San Diego put a temporary moratorium on the removal of eucalyptus along Scripps Ranch Blvd. A special committee was formed with city officials to share scientific data and resolve issues relating to the scope of the brush management process. The goal is for the brush management program to focus on removal of ground/ladder fuel and dead/dying eucalyptus trees while minimizing the elimination of mature trees.
The City Park and Recreation Department and the Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council worked together to reopen the Old Grove trail by removing 91 of the dangerous, dead and dying trees that had been fatally damaged by the Cedar Fire. The SRFSC provided $40,000 and the City provided $20,000 to hire FireStop, a professional forest management firm to do the work. Several months later, the Scripps Ranch Maintenance Assessment District paid additional funding to remove additional overhanging branches from remaining trees.
The City’s fire chief clarified existing policy within the fire safety brush management regulations relating to areas which were defined as “Eucalyptus Woodlands,” such as parts of Scripps Ranch. The amendment would reduce the overall number of trees identified for removal and provide more protection for mature eucalyptus trees not judged to be specific safety risks.
October 16, 2010
The Scripps Ranch Emergency Preparedness Forum was held at Marshall Middle School for the purpose of raising the preparedness level of the community for the next fire, earthquake or other disaster. The event was presented by an alliance of the SRCA SRFSC, and SRECA, and featured presentations and displays concerning public safety.