Those Who Helped
So many residents stepped up to help their neighbors who lost homes in the hours, days, and months after the Cedar Fire. It was a shining moment for Scripps Ranch, and it defined the word “community” to people across the country.
There were community organizers and elected officials who led the effort to rebuild our neighborhoods as quickly as possible. We asked them, after 10 years, what they recall most about that time?
SRCA President Emeritus
Ten years ago Scripps Ranch was hit by the devastating heat and ferocious winds of the Cedar Fire, causing the loss of many homes. The flames were so fierce that the Fire-Rescue Department could hardly contain them as the homes literally exploded with total destruction. Luckily, no lives were lost here in Scripps Ranch.
The tragedy ended up being Scripps Ranch’s finest hours, as our community rallied to help one another, opened our doors to take in those who lost homes, and cooperated wholeheartedly with the government officials in securing a wonderful rebuild and insurance payment program.
Our churches, particularly St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, were magnificent in their help for burned out residents and in providing the assistance needed. The end result was a fantastically rapid rebuild of quality homes and improved insurance coverage.
With the help of our governmental officials, Scripps Ranch became the national model and the poster child community for recovering from a natural disaster. We can take justifiable pride in what we as a community did to recover in the finest American self-help tradition. As we view the rebuilt homes, we are filled with pride in our wonderful community of Scripps Ranch, our home. Together, we accomplished miracles, and it was good.
I distinctly remember the time surrounding the Cedar Fire. My first drive through the burned neighborhoods of Scripps Ranch was surreal, and I felt tremendous sadness for my friends and constituents who lost their homes. As we drove through what remained, I felt determined to do everything in my power to help our community rebuild.
I initially thought about what would be most helpful to the families waiting to return to their neighborhoods. Many of them didn’t even know if they had a home to return to, so I decided to have my staff and I walk every street and compile a list of the homes that were destroyed. As soon as it was complete, it was posted on the SRCA website and my council website, so families could learn the fate of their homes.
Immediately thereafter, I created the Local Assistance Center. I knew those who were evacuated would be under incredible stress, and I wanted to make the rebuilding process as easy and streamlined as possible. Therefore, I directed the placement of city staff at the center so they could focus on getting the necessary rebuilding permits. Then I compiled a list of every group necessary to rebuilding and began coordinating their placement in the center as well. I felt that making the center a “One-Stop Shop” would ease the stress on the survivors and residents and expedite the rebuilding process.
On that terrible day, 312 families lost their homes in Scripps Ranch. However, thanks to a strong community spirit and the incredible success of the Local Assistance Center, the rebuilding process in Scripps Ranch achieved unprecedented results. Just three years following the fire, 98% of building permits were reissued and 273 families had moved back home. The center was so successful that the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) now uses it as a model for disaster recovery.
I remain impressed with so many community organizations that stepped up to help, including the Old Pros, The Burnout Sisters, and so many neighborhood groups and individuals. As for me professionally, the Cedar Fire was a defining part of my City Council tenure. Whenever I speak at an event, the discussion inevitably includes a reference to the work we did during the fires. When I hear others mention the fires, I always think back to that time with profound respect for our community and what we went through, and I feel a tremendous sense of pride as to what we accomplished together.
But more importantly, for me personally, the Cedar Fire had a profound impact on my life. The relationships I formed with the survivors and the entire community were deep, and will be lifelong. I will never forget walking the burned out streets and trying my best to help console people. The images of destroyed homes and the devastated faces of families who lost everything made a permanent impact on my life. It was for this reason that I wanted to ensure that Scripps Ranch was rebuilt as quickly as possible.
I will always remember the incredible way our community came together to rebuild, and I am so proud to have represented Scripps Ranch as a City Council member, and now as a state assembly member. We showed the rest of the city, state, and even country what we were made of.
As president of the SRCA during the Cedar Fire, the whole event was tragic and surreal but also made me very proud of Scripps Ranch. The days of the fire were devastating. From seeing firsthand 30-foot-high flames behind my house across a two-lane Pomerado Road, the hasty evacuation, to the return to my street and finding three houses totally destroyed really knocked me back on my heels.
But then the true nature of our community became apparent. The story of residents and teen boys on my street staying behind and saving several houses, followed by that meeting as St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church, where our neighbors let it be known that we would face this challenge head on and win. With the help of then-Councilmember Brian Maienschein, we not only won but set records and established guidelines that were used after the Witch Creek Fire four years later.
I also remember the meeting with the fire survivors from Orange County, who graciously came down to give us their lessons learned and the look on their faces when they described how they set up a newsletter and we showed them our SRCA Newsletter. My most fond memory was delivering the first “welcome home” welcome mat to a home that was rebuilt and occupied before the first anniversary.
Project Phoenix Committee Chair
Then-SR Planning Group Chair
Then-SRCA District Representative
On an early Sunday morning as the fire started to come into Scripps Ranch I awakened three neighbors from their usually restful Sunday morning sleep with wild pounding on their doors and instructions to leave now, wearing just what they had on. The wind and ash were swirling while the motorcycle officers looked for as many people to leave as possible. The look in our neighbors’ eyes was that of stunned disbelief.
The surreal scene could not be removed from our sleepy minds, even if they closed their front doors and wished it not be so. When we evacuated, the flames were on two sides and cresting over the hill in a wall of red angry heat. I believed that by the time we got to Pomerado Road, there would be little left of my home.
By Sunday afternoon, we could only hope that there were no flare-ups and that the fire departments from all over the county were successful in cleaning up hot spots. That’s when I saw the aftermath of the fire from the safety of a patrol car. Our hearts collectively sank as there was street after street of total devastation.
There was animated response and great relief as good news was delivered. But it was harder to find the words to tell those we knew that what they had was horrifically lost. The inability to find the words only matched that of the emptiness felt by those suffering. I called residents who I had contact information for and let them know that their home was damaged or destroyed. They were some of the toughest calls I ever had to make. One person hung up on me in sheer disbelief. By the grace of God, most families were fortunate to have missed the furor of the flames.
So as I sat at my office desk the next morning, I waited for the sun to rise to see what could be done for those who lost so much. I prayed more did not have to bare the same suffering, and I hoped those who lost their homes would have the strength to find their way back home.
In less than 24 hours, Project Phoenix was born. The Scripps Ranch Civic Association created this committee to help in any way possible. Scripps Ranch residents came forward to help and the rebuilding of our community began.
Then-SRCA Communications VP
What I remember most is the silence at 7 am. You could smell the fire—and then you could see the fire—but there was not a police siren, not a fire engine siren, not a helicopter in the sky. It was very clear we were on our own. We got our cues from the radio on which way the fire was coming, laid out a map on the kitchen table, and planned our own evacuation route, down Carroll Canyon Road, over Interstate 15, and eventually to Miramar Road, and out toward the coast. My takeaways were:
- Think about what you need to take in an emergency beforehand; the chaos of an emergency is not the best time to think things through.
- Think about what your information channels are going to be—battery-powered radios are good backups.
- Cell phones can be useful, but you have to be able to keep them charged. Chargers that plug into the “cigarette lighter” of a car are useful, and if they have adapters for your laptop, that’s useful as well.
- Don’t count on public services, such as police and fire, to be available in a large-scale disaster. They will be busy, but may not be in your backyard.
Times have changed since 2003, and there’s a lot of critical information you can store “in the cloud” which you couldn’t back in 2003.
Fires are a terrible tragedy—it was great to see how the community came together in the wake of this disaster. It took our community three years to rebuild, and, as long as that sounds, it was “record time,” as measured against what most communities endure that suffer through tragedies of a similar magnitude.
St. Gregory the Great Volunteer
It doesn’t seem possible that it has been 10 years since the Cedar Fire. When I look back to that time I remember feeling as if it just couldn’t be real. I was at the Sunday 9 am Mass at St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church when the call came to evacuate Scripps Ranch. I remember the panic trying to get home from church long enough to pack a few bags before evacuating. I remember the days of not knowing how bad it really was while waiting to be allowed back into our neighborhoods.
In those first days and weeks, once the initial shock gave way to a somber acceptance of our new reality, the Ranch pulled together. St. Gregory became one of the central sites for assistance to those in need. I remember spending a day working in the parish hall helping organize the thousands of donated items of clothing, linens, toys, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, and a myriad of other items families would need.
I remember talking to the families coming through the parish hall and hearing over and over again how blessed they felt to have only lost material items in the fire. And I remember just holding one lady as she cried in disbelief struggling to come to terms with all that had been lost.
There are so many memories from 10 years ago, but I can’t begin to express how proud I am of the way Scripps Ranch pulled together. We are a better community for not only surviving, but for truly rising from the ashes.
Chief of Staff
October 26, 2003, is a day I will never forget. I received a call at 7 am saying the fire in East County was likely to reach our district in a very short time. Several hours later, I was driving the streets of Scripps Ranch with then-Councilmember Brian Maienschein and the San Diego Police Department. We watched in shock as the community was on fire, and as we drove, Brian told me he was determined to help the community rebuild as quickly as possible. As I reflect on that day and what has happened since, I’m proud to have been one small part of the amazing recovery efforts and feel a strong bond with the community of Scripps Ranch.
Then-Councilmember Maienschein’s Chief of Policy
Of course there are a number of heartbreaking memories for me from the Cedar Fire, but there are also positive ones that stand out for me. I’ll never forget driving through south of Pomerado with homes burning on both sides of the street. I’ll never forget standing next to rubble and calling Rabbi Fradkin to tell him that Chabad’s old school was gone but that the new school was still standing.
I’ll never forget the sound of one fire survivor’s knees hitting the pavement as he dropped when he saw his destroyed home for the first time. I’ll never forget the woman on Pinecastle whose dog came running up to her through the pile of ash that used to be her home and hearing her say, “I don’t care about that stuff, I’m just glad to have my dog.”
I’ll never forget the work of the SRCA, the Old Pros, the Scripps Ranch Planning Group leaders, the legendary Bob Dingeman, Brian Maienschein, Christine Millay, and the rest of his staff, SRCA webmaster Greg Minter, Jerry Mitchell who helped start the Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council, and numerous volunteers, friends, and residents. They got to work so quickly to start the recovery effort and to clear lots and look forward to rebuilding.
And I’ll never forget Karen Reimus, Bob Ilko, and many others quickly helping Rancho Bernardo residents recover from the same disaster four years later. Scripps Ranch is a truly special community.
Scripps Ranch Representative
I get goose bumps processing the reality that it’s been 10 years since the fire. It just doesn’t seem possible that that much time has passed. But it has, and I feel flooded with many emotions and images when I think of that time.
First, I think of shock, despair, and exhaustion. The fact that the bucolic community of Scripps Ranch lost 312 homes on a seemingly normal Sunday morning was initially just too much to comprehend. Driving through the streets seeing lot after lot with just the charred remains of chimneys amid the rubble beneath was, quite frankly, absolutely stunning. Watching the weary fire victims sift through the remains of their lots for days on end was so heartbreaking. They had lost precious photos, scrapbooks, and other possessions that most likely couldn’t be replaced.
I wanted to do anything I could to help and comfort them. In the days after the fire, I remember meeting dozens of people who lost their homes, each with their own unique story to tell. I think of Karen and Bill Reimus, who had spent the weekend away as a couple, only to come home and have their house burned to the ground.
Despite the devastation, I remember the feeling of gratitude we all felt that no one lost their life on that awful Sunday morning. Ultimately, from my perspective as the Scripps Ranch representative for then-Councilmember Brian Maienschein, I witnessed a grown-up resilience of the men and women who lost their homes. Yes, they lost all of their possessions, but they had their families, and that was all that really mattered. I saw them every day, coming in to the Local Assistance Center. I will never, ever forget their resilience.
I thought it was incredible that nearly all of the families who lost their homes chose to rebuild and live on the same lot. They were not going to let fear drive them away from the neighborhood and community that they loved. It was a truly meaningful process for me to be a part of, and the fire survivors truly became an inspiration to me. People can overcome anything, rebuild, and live happy lives. I feel grateful that I was able to meet such an incredibly amazing group of people who I will always look up to.
I also think of the friendships that were formed, that never would have existed without the fire. There was a group called The Burnout Sisters that still meets today! The bond that the fire victims experienced was unlike anything that I had ever experienced before.
I think the spirit of Scripps Ranch perfectly shined after the fire. The Scripps Ranch Fire Safe Council formed to help figure out how best to keep the community safe from another fire or natural disaster. A very savvy group of survivors even took on the California insurance commissioner to help improve homeowners insurance for everyone in our state. The fire burned 312 homes, but it sparked new friendships and a safer community.
Project Phoenix Volunteer Coordinator
In October 2003 Scripps Ranch was dealing with disaster and emotional trauma. Within the week, the SRCA started Project Phoenix, a committee that would assist the families who had lost everything. Volunteers fell out of the woodwork, so to speak, ready to fill the needs for rebuilding—material and emotional. They were ready to devote hours, days, and for some years, whatever it would take to put those families back on solid ground.
These volunteers interrupted their own lives because they saw someone who needed help to see the light at end of the tunnel. Even those who lost everything organized a support group to help each other. The houses got built and now are homes with families moving on with new dreams, new goals, and new memories.
For me, it was “The People” who made the difference. People with the will to survive and even make a better life, people with giving and caring hearts, unselfish people, people with different talents to meet the different needs to rebuild—young, middle-aged, elderly people all pulling together for those who suffered such a great loss. That is my greatest memory of the Scripps Ranch fire disaster of 2003. I even made new friends.
Since then there have been many greater disasters in the world. Millions and sometimes billions of dollars have been poured into revitalization. But none of them has a success story for rebuilding like Scripps Ranch. It took “The People.”