Lessons learned from the 2003 Old Fire

Oct 18, 2023 | Front Page

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 photos)


Senior Writer


Keeping in mind that Oct. 25 marks the 20th anniversary of the disastrous 2003 Old Fire, it’s important to keep in mind that Santa Ana winds are on the horizon and the so-called fire season is just around the corner.

The 2003 Old fire as seen from Loma Linda.

The 2003 Old fire as seen from Loma Linda.

The Old Fire, so-named for its start on Old Waterman Canyon Road, was intentionally set by an arsonist in the lower region of Waterman Canyon and burned for seven days, consuming 92,281 acres of tinder-dry brush and chaparral and destroyed 993 homes in an area stretching from Cedarpines Park to Running Springs. It also resulted in the death of five persons.

On Oct. 25, 2003, with the temperature in the 100s in the San Bernardino Valley, during hot Santa Ana winds, the Old Fire resulted in the evacuation of every mountain resident from Cedarpines Park to Big Bear, estimated to be approximately 80,000 people. 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 devastating firestorm.

Authorities argued that the week-long blaze was intentionally set by a revenge-seeking arsonist, Rickie Lee Fowler, who was mad at his godfather who had asked him to stop living there since he refused to stop using drugs. That morning, a few mountain residents reported that 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.

Day three of the Old Fire, looking southeastward from Highway 18 near Running Springs.

Day three of the Old Fire, looking southeastward from Highway 18 near Running Springs.

The blaze was finally subdued on Oct. 31, when an early season snowstorm arrived and aided firefighters in putting it out.

Authorities argued further that Fowler was a passenger in the 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. For many years, fire officials were investigating leads, but charges were not leveled against Fowler until Oct. 19, 2009, when a grand jury indicted him on one count of arson of an inhabited structure, one count of aggravated arson and five counts of murder, which were based upon the five mountain residents who died from heart attacks in the burn evacuation area. Fowler was subsequently convicted and sent to death row at San Quentin.

While wildfires are not totally preventable, there are steps that the average homeowner and business owner can take that will reduce the chances of an out-of-control wildfire laying waste to their home or business and surrounding property. With this in mind, it behooves each and every mountain resident to heed the lessons learned from the Old Fire.

First of all, report to authorities all suspicious or illegal activities that you witness in forested areas, such as downed powerlines, the discharge of firearms, smoking, campfires, fireworks or children playing with matches in grassy or heavily forested areas. Also, be on the lookout for vehicles or trailers dragging metal chains or any other metal or sparking object.

A major factor in protecting the area surrounding your your home is keeping all vegetation within 200 feet of your home or vehicle removed, including ladder fuels less than six feet above the ground. Also, regularly clean and remove debris such as pine needles and leaves from the roof and rain gutters, because debris can catch fire from wind-blown embers.

When people think of wildfires, they generally envision huge walls of flames engulfing the home. In reality, most homes don’t ignite from direct contact with a flame front; it’s estimated that 90 percent of homes are destroyed by wind-borne embers that are carried ahead of the fire perimeter. When the heat generated by an intense wildfire is combined with wind, small burning embers can travel several miles away from the fire perimeter. By creating an environment that is too wet to burn, the threat of ember ignition can be greatly reduced. This can be accomplished by installing an external wildfire sprinkler system.

In recalling the Old Fire, Crestline resident Carl Grissom told the Alpine Mountaineer, “I worked on the reconstruction of the telephone lines and 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.”


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