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Incident Name: Cedar Fire
Date: 10/29/03, 1300 hrs
Personnel: Steven Liss Rucker 
Age: 38
Agency/Organization: Novato Fire Protection District
Position: Engineer

Summary: Engineer Steve Rucker and the members of his engine company E-6162 were assigned through a statewide mutual aid system to the Cedar Fire near San Diego. They were assigned to defend a home in a hilly area near Santa Ysabel that was threatened by wind-driven fire spread. Upon their arrival at the home, the crew cleared some brush and decided that the location was defendable. The crew burned out areas of grass 140 feet downhill from the house and made other preparations for the approach of the fire, including laddering the house and stretching hoselines. About 20 minutes after arriving at the house, the crew observed an increase in the fire activity below them. Communications with others in the area were inadequate. Pushed by wind, the main fire unexpectedly made a one-half mile run directly at Engineer Rucker and his crew in less than 2 minutes. Fire conditions worsened within seconds and the Captain observed flame lengths of 40-50 feet. The fire bent over their position in spite of the 140' "Black" they had created. The firefighters retreated to a more shielded position behind the engine. Due to the increasing intense heat, however, the Captain ordered his crew to abandon their position behind the engine and seek shelter in the house, as they had planned.

The firefighters, facing severe thermal exposure, ran for the shelter of the rear of the house. Two firefighters arrived safely to the interior of the house. They then heard a radio call from their Captain indicating that a firefighter was down. The firefighters left the house and began to retrace their steps back toward the engine and their other two crewmates. They encountered the Captain, who told them that Engineer Rucker was down and needed their help. Due to intense heat, the firefighters and the Captain were unable to go to the aid of Engineer Rucker. They retreated again into the house, but within minutes, were forced to evacuate to the engine as the house burned. Engineer Rucker could not be rescued and died of burn injuries. The Captain received severe burn injuries and was hospitalized for 28 days.

The Cedar Fire eventually consumed 280,278 acres and destroyed 2,232 structures, 22 commercial buildings, and 566 outbuildings. Thirteen civilians were killed as a result of the fire and there were 107 injuries. (Adapted from the USFA Memorial Database)

Steve Rucker Steve Rucker

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Maps

Accident Site (approximate)

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  • GIS Animation of San Diego County Fires October, 2003: San Diego State University
  • 900 Orchard Street: view
  • Web-based Mapping Services for San Diego Wildfires 2003: From SDSU

Cedar Fire location:

Cedar Fire Location Cedar Fire Location

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Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

Photo bt Shawn Kreps 20 seconds before flame front bent over.

Wall of Flames Wall of Flames

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Wildlandfire.com Links:

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Media Articles and Reports.

  • California wildfires burn through 600,000 acres

    October 28, 2003 | Online Article

    An 18-mile-long wall of flames -- just a fraction of the blazes scorching Southern California -- devastated the tiny mountain community of Cuyamaca on Tuesday and bore down on the Gold Rush tourist town of Julian.

    The so-called Cedar Fire, perhaps the state's most devastating, breached the town limits of Julian in San Diego County on Tuesday afternoon as 125 fire engines and firefighters positioned themselves around the downtown in a bid to save its historic buildings, some of which date to the 19th century.

    The entire community of Cuyamaca burned Tuesday, according to California Department of Forestry spokesman John Hawkins. By late afternoon, some of the buildings in Julian were lost. With 13 wildfires raging in California from Simi Valley to San Diego, the number of homes destroyed passed 1,900, the charred land totaled more than 600,000 acres and the death toll was 16, fire officials said Tuesday.

    Santa Ana winds, at times gusting up to 50 or 60 mph, swept down mountain canyons from the Mexican border to Simi Valley, driving the fires. The winds began to slacken Tuesday, and the fires began following the land's topography, sometimes with devastating results.

    The Cedar Fire climbed uphill into Cuyamaca and Julian to consume insect-riddled Eucalyptus bark made explosive by a long drought. That blaze is considered zero percent contained, meaning it has not been stopped on any front, officials said.

    Dying Santa Ana winds also caused a wildfire burning in Simi Valley to shift northward Tuesday, moving the enormous flames along a path toward hundreds of homes in the Stevenson Ranch community of Los Angeles County.

    The unexpected turn sent thousands of residents fleeing for their lives with only 15 minutes' warning as the fire's front line drew within a mile of the neighborhood, not far from the Magic Mountain theme park and about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

    Firefighters were able to keep the flames at bay. By Tuesday evening, some residents were returning. Elsewhere in Southern California, the wind change has been good news for firefighters. "These are great weather conditions from what we've been having for the last couple of days," Los Angeles County Fire Capt. Mark Kyllingstad said earlier Tuesday. "We are going to be throwing the toolbox at the fire today."

    Tim Turner of the California Department of Forestry said firefighters in San Diego County, where at least four fires had burned 300,000 acres, had gotten a much-needed break.

  • San Diego Fire Kills Novato Firefighter : Three Firefighters Injured in Attempt to Protect the Town of Julian

    10/4 /2003 | Lisa Leff, AP Writer

    NOVATO, Calif. (AP) -- The firefighter killed when a fast-moving wildfire overtook his four-man crew as they tried to save a home was remembered at his home firehouse Thursday as a hard worker dedicated to the job.

    "He wasn't sent there. He asked to go,'' Deputy Novato Fire Chief Dan Northern said, fighting back tears as he stood beside a makeshift shrine of flowers, photos and the gear Steve Rucker had left behind.

    Rucker, 38, was the first firefighter killed battling the blazes that have ravaged Southern California since the Santa Ana winds began blowing through the parched hills last week. Twenty people have died in wildfires still raging in San Diego, San Bernardino and Ventura counties.Rucker and his crew from the Novato Fire Protection District, north of San Francisco, were in San Diego County on Wednesday fighting a wildfire that has burned more than 230,000 acres and nearly 1,100 homes.

    They were trying to save a mountain home near Wynola when the fire flared up. The crew was overrun so quickly they didn't have time to reach their engine, said Fred Batchelor, a state fire marshal. He said they tried to take refuge in the house they were trying to protect.

    "It's calm one moment, and the next moment you have an explosive situation,'' Batchelor said. "In this case, it flared up and rolled in there and engulfed them.

    ''One of the three surviving crew members, Capt. Doug McDonald, was in critical condition Thursday with burns over 18 percent of his body. The other two, Shawn Kreps and Barrett Smith, were treated for minor burns.

    At the site just off Highway 78 and Orchard Lane, yellow police tape cordoned off the area where Rucker died.

    Hundreds of miles to the north in Novato, Rucker's fellow firefighters remembered the 11-year veteran firefighter and father of two as they stood around the memorial in the firehouse lobby.

    "We're all struggling, trying to make sense of the situation,'' Northern said. He said Rucker was always happy, involved in his community and loved his job.

    Fire Chief Jeff Meston prepared to fly to the San Diego area with members of the firefighters' families Thursday. He said Rucker was "really one of those firefighters that we all love.''

    "He's the kind of guy that organizes for the families -- the Easter Bunny coming, Santa Claus coming for the kids,'' Meston said. "He was just a great man.''

    At a morning briefing in the San Diego area, many firefighters wore black bands on their badges in memory of Rucker as they prepared to go out and battle the blaze that had killed him.

    "We know our job is dangerous,'' said Jim Venneau, a 31-year-old firefighter stationed in nearby Julian. "We know the chances we take when we do these kinds of things. It bothers you. You want to know exactly what happened because you don't want it to happen to you.''

  • Novato firefighter's body to be flown home today

    November 03, 2003 | SF Gate: Online Article

    The body of Steven Rucker, the Novato firefighter killed last week while battling the raging Cedar Fire in San Diego County, will be flown home to Novato this afternoon. Novato Fire Chief Jeff Meston said Rucker's family, fellow firefighters and friends will be at the Santa Rosa Airport to receive Rucker's remains, which are expected to arrive around 2 p.m.

    Rucker, 38, was killed, and three other Novato firefighters injured, on Wednesday as they tried to save a house from the expanding fire. But the winds shifted suddenly and Rucker died on the porch of the home, while his fellow firefighters took shelter inside.

    Meston said two of the three firefighters injured -- Barrett Smith and Shawn Kreps, who were treated and released with minor injuries -- will accompany Rucker's body when it is flown aboard an Air National Guard plane. The third firefighter, Captain Doug McDonald, who received second-degree burns on 28 percent of his body apparently while trying to rescue Rucker, remains hospitalized in the burn unit at UC San Diego.

    McDonald's health is improving daily, Meston said, and doctors are expected to remove a breathing tube from his smoke-damaged lungs soon.

    Meston said the four-day delay in returning Rucker's body stemmed from the fact that the Cedar Fire, which is believed to have been started by a lost hunter, is being investigated as a crime scene. As such, investigators are required to provide detailed evidence for any future legal proceedings.

    Once in Santa Rosa, Rucker's body will be placed in a paramedic's truck for the ride to Novato and will be escorted by several fire engines as well as the highway patrol. The procession is expected to stop briefly at the Novato Fire Protection District's headquarters sometime after 3:30 p.m. There, fellow firefighters will salute their fallen colleague.

    A public memorial service for Rucker is scheduled for Wednesday, Nov. 12, at 11 a.m. at the Veterans Auditorium at the Marin County Civic Center in San Rafael. A fund for Rucker's 7-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son has been established by the Fire Department. For more information, call the Bank of Marin at (415) 899-7338.

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Photos, Videos, & Tributes

NASA Satellite of Cedar Fire

2003 Firestorm, NASA Satelite Imagery 2003 Firestorm, NASA Satelite Imagery
2003 Firestorm, NASA Satelite Imagery 2003 Firestorm, NASA Satelite Imagery

Steve Rucker with Engine 6162 crew at Santa Ysabel on the morning of 10/29/03

Steve Rucker with Engine 6162, 2nd from right Steve Rucker with Engine 6162, 2nd from right

Memorial Program

Memorial program Memorial program

Presentation of the Wildland Firefighter Foundation statue

Awarding the WFF statue at the Novato FD on 5/13/04 Awarding the WFF statue at the Novato FD on 5/13/04
 
 

Firefighters honor Steve; photo credit to Troy Case

Firefighters honor Steve Firefighters honor Steve

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Contributors to this article: Mellie, Tom, J Benshoof, Troy Case

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