Laguna fire, September 26, 1970

September 26-Oct. 3 1970: The Laguna fire burned 175,425 acres, killed eight civilians, and destroyed 382 homes. In 24 hours the fire burned from near Mount Laguna, California into the outskirts of El Cajon and Spring Valley. Previously known as the Kitchen Creek Fire and the Boulder Oaks Fire, it was, at its time, the second largest fire in the recorded history of California.

The Laguna fire started from downed power lines during Santa Ana winds near the intersection of Kitchen Creek road and the Sunrise Highway in the Laguna Mountains in eastern San Diego County on the morning of September 26, 1970. In only 24 hours it burned westward about 30 miles (50 km) to the west. The fire devastated the communities of Harbison Canyon and Crest. Santa Ana winds are warm, dry winds that characteristically occur in Southern California weather during autumn and early winter.

Here is one of the pages from the report referenced below. Anyone remember when we used to make charts and graphs using colored pencils and graph paper?

From the official Laguna Fire Analysis, 1970


Laguna fire, 1970, using Google Maps, not colored pencils

For more info:

The day the Laguna fire started I was a crewmember on the El Cariso Hot Shots, and we were mopping up a brush fire near Corona. We heard the radio traffic that morning about the new fire and the reports that it was was cranking. It was The Big One. And there we were, stuck on the dreaded mopup on a fire that was pretty much out. For hours we kept poking around trying to find something hot to put out, as we kept hearing more about the fire on Laguna Mountain that was hauling ass. We wanted to be there.

El Cariso Hot Shots 1972
The El Cariso Hot Shots at Lake Henshaw in 1972. Photo: Bill Gabbert

Finally, late in the afternoon we were dispatched to it. By the time we got to Pine Valley it was after sunset, and for some reason, I, a first-year hot shot, was in the pickup with Ron Campbell, the Superintendent. The two open-top crew carriers were behind us. As we drove into Pine Valley the hills to the south and east were alive with the orange flames of the fire. The one radio channel we had on the Cleveland National Forest was completely jam-packed with radio traffic. You could not get a word in edgewise. We knew that this was going to be one that we would remember.

We worked on the fire all that night and then pulled several more shifts before we were transferred to the Boulder 2 fire in Cuyamaca State Park, which was a rekindle from the Boulder fire.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

2 thoughts on “Laguna fire, September 26, 1970”

  1. I was a California Division of Forestry firefighter (since 1967)at Campo Station when we were dispatched to the Laguna Fire. The origin in Kitchen Creek was just a few miles North of our station. We saw the huge billowing smoke clouds even before the alarm came in. I recall the tremendous height even early-on, and the dark brown and white contrast to the smoke. It was beautiful, while causing a sick feeling that this is a very, very bad fire. The winds were howling and changing directions wildly.

    We were sent up the road to Mount Laguna from “Highway 80”; everything we crossed would be incinerated shortly. As we arrived it was clear that no amount of fire equipment could stop, let alone slow this fire: The narrow paved road to Mount Laguna was of no use as a firebreak, and very steep terrain, along with heavy fuel, precluded any effective firefighting. We had an excellent safety zone from which to observe the fire’s progress. This was the first time I felt totally helpless and inconsequential on a fire. The fire rapidly jumped the highway in 3 or 4 places that we could see. Not only were burning objects rolling down the steep slope, but the wind was causing spotfires even further out into the green, unburned and thick vegetation. And the community of Pine Valley was directly in its path.

    Grouped into strike teams, we turned back towards Highway 80 to the South, and responded in force to Pine Valley. I was in my 20’s, and the adrenalin was peaking-out.
    There is excitement and being afraid colliding, and I can still remember those feelings 40 years later.

    Pine Valley was perfectly named. Full of pine trees. Very flammable
    pine trees. Worse than that, dry yellow grass, dead branches, twigs, branches, pine cones everywhere. Surrounding us and the mostly wooden structures we were there to protect. But we had ID’d our safety escape zones, and felt we could fight fire until the water ran out.

    The wind was brutal. We were hit not only by ground fire in the flashy fuel, but also by crown fire in the pine trees. I had been on a good number of brush fires. But this was like nothing I’d experienced. When I saw entire trees ‘explode’ into fireballs, I couldn’t help ‘seeing’ the scenes from the film “Red Skies of Montana”, about USFS smokejumpers fighting forest fires — and trees ‘exploding’ into fire with a sound like dynamite going off; but the real thing was different: It was a combination of deafening crinkling, whooshing and popping.

    I was nozzleman on an inch-and-a-half hoseline, using an adjustable nozzle. We also carried wyes and extra hose, so we could extend our hoseline to reach spot fires. I carried a straight-stream shutoff nozzle in my right jacket pocket. We spent the majority of the onslaught hauling the hoseline from one building to another. We’d knock-down the most threatening fire, then rush to the next. The smoke was extremely thick; it was difficult to breathe, even wearing a wet bandanna. And visibility? ‘Okay’ at one moment, zero the next.

    Just after the other firefighter went back for more hose I saw flames in an area outside the fireline. Hoping to stop it, I started towards it, the hoseline over my shoulder, held with both hands.

    I remember thinking I wished my crewman was with me to pull this damn hose… then feeling weightless for a second, followed by a crushing feeling against my ribs on the right side.
    In the thick smoke I hadn’t even seen a 6-foot deep ditch. And I landed on the nozzle in my jacket pocket. I remember thinking I hope this isn’t bad enough to take me off the fire. But it was quickly apparent from the extreme pain and difficulty breathing that it was pretty bad.

    I was fortunate that the other firefighter returned soon, and didn’t fall in on top of me. No way could I have climbed out on my own.

    I can’t recall if it was 2 or 3 broken ribs and contusions. I do remember how I felt like I was deserting my crew as I was taken to the hospital.

    I returned to duty while the fire was still active. We pretty much hit the entire South side of the fire. There was incredible destruction, for dozens of miles.

    I just realized today that it’s been 40 years this September. I retired in 2000 from the Orange County Fire Authority with 31 years, and The Laguna Fire was bar-none the most catastrophic wildfire I’ve ever fought fire on.

  2. You know, even as a GISS in a modern plans section, I still keep an arsenal of colored pencils, markers, straightedges, and curves for those moments when the technology doesn’t hold together, and the end user can’t wait. Over-reliance on flaky tech can be a big breakdown for a high-reliability organization.


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