Office of Operations
21st Century Operations Using 21st Century Technologies

6.1 What Happened

6.1.1 Incident

In October to November of 2003, there were 13 wildfires burning in southern California, with one of the fires being the Old Fire. Old Fire burned a large portion of the San Bernardino National Forest, over 91,000 acres with an estimate of over $37 million of damage. One of the communities impacted by the wildfire was Big Bear Valley, which is the subject of this case study.

On the morning of October 25, 2003, Old Fire occurred due to suspected arson. The environmental conditions of the forest contributed to the fire such as high fuel loads, long-term drought, and major tree mortality due to pine beetle infestation. Santa Ana winds contributed to its spread.

Residents and local officials of Big Bear Valley knew of the fire through news reports and visual sightings. The mountaintops were burning near the valley.

Initially, the fire was a federal fire due to it starting on federal land. However, once homes started burning, a unified command system was established with local, state, and federal incident commanders involved in the decision making.

6.1.2 Evacuation

Old Fire started burning for 4 days prior to the mandatory evacuation of Big Bear Valley.

Trigger points were set for the evacuation of the valley at the Old Fire Command Post. Collectively, experts in fire and law enforcement, along with local governments, determined the trigger points that were acceptable to all. These trigger points were put into the management plan of the incident.

The first trigger was set for a voluntary evacuation and the second trigger was for a mandatory evacuation. Trigger points were based on such factors as fuel type, weather, terrain, number of escape routes, and distance.

The voluntary evacuation trigger was hit early in the morning of October 25; a couple of hours later, the mandatory evacuation trigger was also hit.

When the voluntary evacuation trigger was struck, school children were en route to school. The Big Bear City Fire Department met with school officials and held off broadcasting the voluntary evacuation notice until the school children were at school for approximately 45 minutes. The reasoning was to allow for an orderly process for parents to retrieve their children. It was felt that if the voluntary evacuation order was broadcast while the school children were being transported, there could have been chaos. Once the school buses arrived at school, the schools put into place their reunification plans with parents.

The evacuation took approximately 14 hours to complete. The evacuation was compounded by the evacuation of residents and evacuees from surrounding communities. Three communities to the west of Big Bear Valley, Crestline, Running Springs, and Lake Arrowhead had residents leave their homes and evacuate to Big Bear Valley. There are approximately 20,000 full-time residents of the valley and approximately 5,000 to 10,000 residents from surrounding communities.

As a result of the fire, Highway 18 to the west of Big Bear Valley was closed. The concern with the evacuation was there are two easterly main roads that lead out of town. Highway 18, northeast of the valley, is a steep, twisty two-lane road, and traffic was slow due to the grade. The second road, Highway 38, is more scenic and not as twisty. However, if the fire had continued to push westward into the valley, Highway 38 would have been lost as an escape route. Thus, one of the evacuation triggers was maintaining escape routes.

Exhibit 4 presents an approximate timeline of the incident.

Exhibit 4—Timeline for Big Bear Valley Incident
Saturday, October 25, 2003



Old Fire starts

Sunday, October 26, 2003



Governor declares San Bernardino County a state of emergency

Tuesday, October 29, 2003



Voluntary evacuation of Big Bear Valley


Mandatory evacuation of Big Bear Valley


Schools and residents from hospital evacuated

Tuesday, November 6, 2003



Evacuations lifted

February 6, 2006
Publication #FHWA-HOP-08-014