In October 2003, a confluence in southern California of low humidity, dead vegetation, and Santa Ana winds created the conditions for a firestorm--multiple fires that burned for some two weeks, scorched hundreds of thousands of acres, destroyed thousands of buildings, and took 24 lives. One conflagration, the Cedar Fire in San Diego County, became the largest in state history. While California boasts one of the best firefighting operations in the world, with exhaustive coordination across federal, state and local boundaries, this set of fires sent the system reeling. In the midst of operational chaos, highly placed elected officials in San Diego entered the fray with offers of military aircraft and helicopters to fight the fire--which the firefighters did not want. This case tells the story of what can happen when the operational imperative--to fight fires effectively but safely--collides with the political imperative to override established procedures as necessary to protect the public.
The case allows for discussion of crisis management and crisis communication. It allows students to debate how responsive line fire department officials should be to political suggestions and pressures. It also raises the issue of preparedness. The case can be used to in courses on political management, crisis management, or domestic preparedness (for natural disasters).