Exogenous Events, Fires, and the Height of the Tide

California fires October 2003Back in 2003 during the inevitable post mortems after the massive Cedar Fire in southern California that burned hundreds of thousands of acres, destroyed two thousand homes, and killed more than a dozen people, there was one quote that always stuck with me. The then San Diego fire chief was asked about the most terrifying moment of forward progress for him, when he most doubted where they could make a stand and stop the fire. He said it came midday on October 26th.

Recall, the Cedar Fire had started late on October 25th, had burned all night pushed by hurricane force Santa Ana winds, racing across 40 miles of scrub and chaparral, and had now penetrated the city. People were in full panic, freeways were clogged, and no-one knew what was next. 

To give you a flavor, here are some snippets from the police and fire log around that time:

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The chief said that, for him, that moment came around noon on October 26th, when Santa Ana winds had pushed the fire along the 52 corridor as far as the intersection of the 805 and 52 freeways, to a point where it could progress all the way down Rose Canyon to Mount Soledad and into La Jolla. What would have stopped it at that point, asked the interviewer, if the winds hadn’t died down and stopped pushing the fire to the west? Only the “height of the tide”, the fire chief responded.

Only the height of the tide. That line has always stuck with me. Sometimes we are very small, and things are very big, and changes outside our control become the only things that matter.