The Old Fire Remembered

Oct 27, 2022 | Features

Staff Writer

On Oct. 25, 2003, with the temperature in the 100s in the San Bernardino Valley, during hot Santa Ana winds, the Old Fire was intentionally started in Old Waterman Canyon, causing the evacuation of every mountain resident from Cedarpines Park to Big Bear, estimated to be approximately 80,000 people.
It was one of about 15 wildfires to hit Southern California that month. The Santa Ana winds, coupled with the temperatures, allowed the Old Fire to char 92,2081 acres and lay waste to 993 homes. And it led to five deaths. It merged with the Grand Prix Fire, which had started several days earlier in the San Gabriel Mountains, and together they burned for over a week, creating a wicked firestorm.
It was intentionally lit by a revenge-seeking arsonist. He said he was mad at his godfather who had asked him to stop living at his home since he refused to stop using drugs. That morning a few mountain residents reported they saw a suspicious white van on the side of Highway 18, overlooking Waterman Canyon, with someone throwing things into the brush and a fire igniting.
Authorities charged that Rickie Lee Fowler was a passenger in that white van seen leaving the area where the fire started and that he was the person seen throwing a lit flare into the brush by the side of the road. The driver of the van was Martin David Valdez Jr., who died of a gunshot wound in 2006.
For many years, fire officials were investigating leads, but charges were not brought against Fowler until Oct. 19, 2009, when a grand jury indicted him with one count of arson of an inhabited structure, one count of aggravated arson, and five counts of murder, which were based on the five residents who died of heart attacks in the burn evacuation area. Another 14 people were killed during the 2003 Christmas Day mudslides that ripped through a church camp in Waterman Canyon, but he was not charged with those deaths, although the mudslides were a direct result of the fire-ravaged hillsides being stripped of vegetation by the fire. He was convicted on two counts of arson and five counts of murder, for the deaths of Charles Howard Cunningham, 93, of San Bernardino; Ralph Eugene McWilliams, 67, of Cedar Glen; Chad Leo Williams, 70, of Crestline; James William McDermoth, 70, of San Bernardino; and Robert Norman Taylor, 54, of San Bernardino. He is currently in prison on death row. The fire caused almost $1.2 billion in damage.
The fire lasted over a week with more than 900 homes completely lost, hundreds of additional structures burned and thousands of bark beetle-ravaged trees incinerated. The fire wrapped around the west mountain communities from Silverwood Lake, burning many outlying homes in Cedarpines Park across the southern front of the mountain, burning forest perimeter homes along the way to Running Springs, where again it burned homes. One day, it breached the fire lines along the Rim of the World Highway, near Skyforest, and moved into Cedar Glen, burning 100 homes. Fire crews from throughout the state helped save the communities, as the forest burned.
There were evacuation centers set up in the High Desert in Hesperia and Victorville, with animal shelters, and at the Orange Show in San Bernardino. The sheriff issued orders to evacuate. Highway 18 to San Bernardino was instantly closed by the fire, so Highway 330 was used for the first day; then, it too was closed as the fire had moved east along the front of the mountain. Highway 18 through Big Bear to the Lucerne Valley was then used until Running Springs was threatened, but most residents had left the mountain by then. The back side of Highway 138 was slow-going but was the best route to the 15 Freeway, but soon the Grand Prix Fire was also threatening the east side of the 15, and the Old Fire was burning the east side below Cedarpines Park, closing the I-15, leaving the evacuating residents to stay on the north side of the mountains. Many agencies helped evacuate those residents who had preregistered and had no actual means of getting out, so they used Mountain Transit and the school buses to leave the area.
The TV stations and news reporters were very confused by the mountain community’s names, twisty and curvy streets with non-90-degree corners, making outrageous pronouncements that Crestline, Valley of Enchantment, and other communities had been completely burned, leading to the stress of those who were evacuated. Then, when Cedar Glen did burn, it was almost unbelievable to the viewers, as they saw the destruction.
On Oct. 31, an early-season snowstorm arrived and helped firefighters put out the fire. The change in the weather is what has in the past been a major element in putting out large wildfires.
After the Old Fire was contained and damped by the snow, it was still days, almost a week in many cases, before the burned roadways and the communities were opened to returning residents. The roadways, railing, and signs were burned, making the highways dangerous and delaying the return of residents. Electricity was still not restored by the time many residents returned to find how the smoke or flames had affected their part of the mountain.
Each resident had to get permission to return, proving residency with utility bills and driver’s licenses. The communities were opened up, one at a time, depending on the damage to the area. Since most of the burned buildings were along the south perimeter, the majority of residents from Cedarpines Park and Cedar Glen came home to some smoke damage but, since the wind had been so strong, most of the smoke had been blown out to the desert.
Those 900 homes destroyed led to many rebuilding problems since the county had previously increased the minimum lot size decades after some of the older homes were built, leading to an inability to rebuild on the same lot. Many of the cabins destroyed were on those smaller, older lots, especially in the Cedar Glen area, where the water company also had financial problems, not allowing it to reopen.
It’s now 19 years after the Old Fire attacked the San Bernardino Mountains and, because of many problems, at least 100 of the 900 homes burned have not been rebuilt. The Old Fire is still impacting the current housing situation in these mountains.

The Old Fire raged through Skyforest, where KNBC Channel 4 news reporter Chuck Henry narrowly escaped death after his news van exploded in flames. (File photo)

The 2003 Old Fire as seen from Loma Linda. (Contributed photo)


Day three of the Old Fire, looking southeastward from Highway 18 near Running Springs. (File photo by Douglas W. Motley)

1 Comment

  1. Carl Grissom

    I worked on the reconstruction of the telephone lines and I remember how devastating it was , one side of the street would be like a bomb went off and the other side would be untouched , cars melted into puddles of metal in driveways it was something I will never forget as long as I live


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