Chief Ron Coleman looks back 35 years at 2,400-acre fire

Ron Coleman
Chief Ron Coleman facilitating the International Association of Wildland Fire’s Wildland Fire Policy Summit, Feb. 12, 2002. Photo by Bill Gabbert

It was 35 years ago today that a wildfire in southern California burned from Camp Pendleton into the city of San Clemente, burning 2,400 acres, destroying 16 homes and damaging 144 others. Ron Coleman, who began his fire career with the U. S. Forest Service, was the San Clemente Fire Chief at the time and later became California’s State Fire Marshall, president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and well-known author and consultant. Soon after the fire, San Clemente passed the nation’s first ordinance requiring fire sprinklers in all new homes.

The Orange County Register has an interview with Chief Coleman on the anniversary of the January 21, 1976  fire. Here is an excerpt.


We asked Coleman to look back 35 years:

Q. Did the 1976 fire help change the fire service?

A. It helped to change the fire service throughout California. The day the fire occurred in San Clemente, we had a large number of wildfires burning throughout the state. The mobilization efforts were huge. As a result of fires in the ’70s, FIRESCOPE (Firefighting Resources of California Organized for Potential Emergencies) was created. FIRESCOPE has been directing policy and procedure on mutual aid ever since.

Q. Did code changes result?

A. There were no direct code changes as a result of that specific fire. However, beginning in 1973, up until the time I left San Clemente in ’84, there was a continued emphasis on fire-code development to build a safer community. San Clemente was on the leading edge of many fire-code developments that are now in international codes.

Q. What is San Clemente’s distinction in the fire service?

A. We created the first residential sprinkler ordinance. That concept has been embraced by the International Code Council and has resulted in a new paradigm for fire protection.

Q. Have others picked up on what San Clemente did?

A. At one point when I was state fire marshal, we identified in excess of 700 ordinances nationwide before the concept was introduced into the International Code Council. The Orange County Fire Authority is a leading contributor to that concept.

Q. If the fire happened today, what might be different?

A. The very area where we staged our initial lines of defense is covered with homes today, and the ridgeline where we had our backs to the wall is now in the middle of all that development. The outer fringes of San Clemente still face a threat. But more modern building and fire codes have altered the nature of that exposure. Another fire could occur. … Having said that, we have stronger codes and a highly developed mutual-aid system. The next fire is likely to have a different outcome.

Q. What did you do before you arrived in San Clemente?

A. I had served as the operations chief in the Costa Mesa Fire Department. Prior to that, I had been a wildland firefighter in the U.S. Forest Service. My introduction to California was San Clemente. I graduated from 2nd ITR at Camp Pendleton in October 1957. I took a bus into San Clemente and walked all the way down to the pier. From the end of the pier, I looked back into San Clemente and all I could see were palm trees, white houses and red roofs. I made a decision right then that I was never going back to Oklahoma.

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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.

3 thoughts on “Chief Ron Coleman looks back 35 years at 2,400-acre fire”

  1. Chief Ron, As a young fire prevention officer I used your film ( yes 16 MM!) to show to our local home builders to attempt to educate them. Unfortunately, they were not impressed. I was and still am. Thanks

  2. Ron just keeps rolling along. What a long, stellar career he had. He offered his help and mentorship to many young or new Chief Officers in the California Fire Service.

    1. Hi Ron thinking of ya writing book your a part. Thanks for being a mentor to me. Retired now Fallbrook ca.


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