He’d never once hunted deer before that Saturday, October 25, 2003. But despite anything else he might have done in his thirty-three years, despite anything else he might do in the future, from that day on, Sergio Martinez would be known as the lost hunter who started the Cedar Fire, the biggest wildfire in California’s recorded history.
Under normal circumstances, Martinez and I wouldn’t have had much in common. He was a young construction worker in Los Angeles. I was a fifty-year-old magazine editor working for a university in San Diego. If not for the spark that jumped from his hand and took off running straight toward my home in a canyon fourteen miles away, Martinez and I never would have met.
A perfect firestorm
But then there was nothing normal, or so it seemed at the time, about what happened after Sergio Martinez got lost in the Cleveland National Forest and made a desperate decision to light a signal fire amid critical wildfire conditions.
Spurred by a rare confluence of ominous circumstances, Martinez’s spark took hold in a patch of desiccated native brush and exploded into a perfect firestorm. Timing, location, and weather conspired against air tankers, fire engines, and bulldozers, giving the flames a chance to gather strength.
And then, almost at the stroke of midnight, the Cedar Fire broke away on a swelling wind and galloped west toward the Pacific Ocean. Moving faster than firefighters had ever seen a wildfire move before, it devoured two, three, sometimes four acres a second, spitting brands and embers miles ahead of itself, rearing up into hundred-foot towers of flames.
In the course of its weeklong rampage, unstoppable waves of fire took the lives of 15 people, incinerated 2,232 homes, and ravaged a chunk of San Diego County nearly twenty times the size of Manhattan.
When the Cedar Fire first flickered to life, a far-away circle of flames, neither my husband nor I could have imagined it would touch us. And when it rose and thundered in our direction, we did not perceive its coming. Instead, like every other creature living in our backcountry canyon, including the bobcat that would save our lives, we carried on unaware, lingering in our dreams until flames began to light the sky and devour the land outside our windows.
(Read the rest of the Cedar Fire story in The Fire Outside My Window! And don't miss the upcoming NBC documentary, Sunday, March 8, 2015 at 9 p.m.!)