October 25, 2003 was the first day of the infamous Cedar Fire in San Diego County. At that time, it was the largest, most disastrous fire in U.S. history. There was no part of the county that was unaffected by this fire. I’m sure many people who lived in the area during this time have their own stories of this fire. Some, like me and my friends and family, were lucky not to have had any permanent loss, but others lost their homes and neighborhoods and a few lost their lives.
At the time of this fire, I had lived in San Diego for over twenty years and fires in October were a way of life. Most of the fires were in the eastern parts of San Diego, usually in the mountains or the foothills. There were some large fires that spanned over thousands of acres with home losses and deaths; they rarely spread much beyond the area they started. When I got up early that Saturday morning to go for a walk at Lake Murray, I wasn’t too concerned when I heard of the fire near Julian heading west.
At that time, I had two jobs and most of the time I worked seven days a week. But, I had that day, a Saturday, off. I woke up around 5 a.m. and proceeded to get ready for my walk while listening to the radio. There was mention of the fire spreading towards Ramona at that time and possible evacuations, but then they went on to other news of the morning. It was still dark when I started my walk and I usually don’t listen to my radio with my headphones until it got light out. Nothing seemed unusual until the sun started coming up. I noticed a strange “fog” in the northeast. Usually, fog comes from the west or northwest in this area. I didn’t think it was smoke from a fire over forty miles away at that time.
When I put my portable radio and headphones on, the news about the fire was more continuous and there were talks about evacuating San Diego Country Estates, a large cluster of homes near Ramona. The radio mentioned about how people were trying to get out of the area using the narrow Wildcat Canyon Road that runs from Ramona to Lakeside, and how the road was jammed. Many people were afraid that they wouldn’t be able to evacuate. I noticed the fog had gotten more intense and redder as I neared the end of my walk. Another few minutes later, I noticed ash falling. By then it was clear that the “fog” was actually a raging fire.
I passed some people talking about the smoke and I told them about the fire going on. At that time, other than the smoke in the northeast and the ash, the sky around Lake Murray was clear and nice. These people were actually talking about going to see the fire, but I cautioned against it telling them that this fire was “looking to be a very bad one. People are having trouble evacuating and I’m sure they won’t want anyone else on the roads in that area.” I hope they didn’t end up going to the fires.
During that first day, most of San Diego was experiencing nice weather and most people were going on their day probably thinking that this was an “east county thing”. By the end of the day, most of the county had a good view of the smoke and large size of the fire. But, it wasn’t until the second day onward that the more urban areas began to feel the impact of the smoke.