Looking back at California’s Blue Ribbon Report following the fires of 2003

California fires October, 2003
Southern California fires, October 2003. Moving northwest to southeast along the coast, the first cluster of red dots is a combination of the Piru, Verdale, and the Simi Incident Fires; The next cluster-to the east of Los Angeles-is the Grand Prix (west) and Old (east) Fires; To their south is the Roblar 2 Fire; Next is the Paradise Fire; Then the massive Cedar Fire, whose thick smoke is completely overshadowing the coastal city of San Diego; Finally, at the California-Mexico border is the Otay Fire. (A fire in Baja California is also visible.) NASA photo.

It has been a decade since numerous large fires burned hundreds of thousands of acres in southern California in late October, 2003.

Some of the larger ones included Piru, Grand Prix, Old, Paradise, Padua, Simi, Roblar 2, Verdale, Mountain, and Otay. And the Cedar Fire east of San Diego is still ranked as the largest fire in the recorded history of California. The first night it killed 14 people. The fire burned 273,246 acres, and destroyed 2,232 homes in eastern San Diego County. While trying to defend a house near Santa Ysabel, fire Captain Steven Rucker, 38, from the Novato Fire Department was overrun by the fire and killed.

After that fire season the Blue Ribbon Fire Commission’s subsequent 232-page report made more than 40 recommendations. The Sacramento Bee summarized the status of some that were more notable:

  • Allocating “sufficient funds” to state and local fire agencies to address California’s fire prevention and suppression needs. Status: Budget cuts reduced funding. A new fire-prevention fee generated an estimated $85 million in the 2012-13 fiscal year.
  • Replacing and diversifying Cal Fire’s “aging helicopter fleet.” Status: Cal Fire is finishing up design specifications for a helicopter with night-flighting and other firefighting capabilities.
  • Creating a “multi-layered” public education campaign for people living in fire-prone areas. Status: There is no stand-alone state campaign. A mix of local and nonprofit groups is publicizing the risk.
  • Adopting new building codes for vents, roofing and other features for homes. Status: Codes were passed by Legislature in 2004 and required of new construction in 2008.
  • Expanding vegetation clearance around homes. Status: In 2004, the Legislature increased defensible space from 30 feet to 100 feet.
  • Acquire 150 additional fire engines to address California’s fire suppression needs. Status: The state purchased 19 fire engines in 2008. Twenty-five more engines will be delivered in 2014.

More information:

  • Blue Ribbon Commission’s Report on the 2003 fire season, released in 2004 (warning: large 20 MB .pdf file)
  • September, 2004 update on recommendations
  • November, 2005 update on recommendations
  • January, 2008, Blue Ribbon Fire Task Force Update (including 2007 Southern CA Firestorm)


Thanks go out to Ken

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.