Ron Campbell, 1942 – 2013

We recently found out that a former U.S. Forest Service district Fire Management Officer and Superintendent of the El Cariso Hotshots passed away in April. Ron Campbell for the last 13 years had been dealing with a variety of medical issues, including cancer as well as heart and liver failures. He had been living in Redding, California and was 72 years old.

Ron Campbell at El Cariso Hotshot Camp, 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Ron Campbell at El Cariso Hotshot Camp, 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I worked for Ron on El Cariso for three years. He was by far the best supervisor I ever had. He became more than that — a friend.

This news comes a couple of weeks after we found out that the El Cariso Hot Shots have been disbanded, at least until next year — two blows that feel like a punch to the gut for those who knew Ron or worked on the crew.

He started with the U.S. Forest Service in 1961 as a firefighter on the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California. In 1963 he was promoted to Driver at Alpine working for Chuck Mills and later worked at Descanso. He was a smokejumper at Redding in 1964 for one summer then he worked in fire prevention and was station foreman at Japatul and Mt. Laguna on the Cleveland NF. He was Superintendent of the El Cariso Hot Shots from 1969 until 1975 when he transferred to the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California as Assistant Fire Management Officer on the Yolla Bolly Ranger District. Two years later he transferred to the Sequoia as district Fire Management Officer at Kernville. In 1979 he left the USFS to work with his brother as a private contractor on slash removal and fuel modification projects.

Before I was on El Cariso I worked for one summer on the Mendocino National Forest in northern California running a chain saw on a timber stand improvement (TSI) crew, thinning young Douglas Fir stands. I went to “fire school”, got a Red Card, and worked on three small fires that summer. I decided that fighting fire was more fun than thinning trees and in 1970 got a job on El Cariso with the help of a USFS college student summer work program through my school, Mississippi State University.

Kenny Tortez and Ron Campbell
Kenny Tortez, Supt. of Del Rosa Hotshots (left) and Ron Campbell on the way to a fire with their two crews in 1971. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Ron was skeptical of me at first, since I got the job through a non-traditional method. He pushed me harder, I thought, than most of the others on the crew, but maybe everyone thought the same thing about themselves. Eventually he came around to the fact that I had chain saw experience and made me a sawyer on the crew. One of my fellow firefighters thought I was stupid for disclosing that I knew how to run a chain saw, saying it was the hardest job. I was shocked the next year when I became one of the crew foremen.

Ron was able to see things in people, tap into their strengths, and help them develop their potential. We did a great deal of training on the crew, more than most wildland firefighters did in the 1970s. He knew how to inspire people and challenged us to become students of fire.

I asked Charlie Phenix what he remembered about Ron:

I was on the El Cariso crew 1969-1970 and Ron was the Superintendent. The crew was 30 men and most were new. I remember him as bigger than life, but I was just 19. From the beginning he was very stern but fair, I never ran so many PT miles in my life. He had a bent broken finger and when he pointed at us it was kind of funny. This was only 3 years after the Loop Fire so safety was a priority. He saw things in me I didn’t know I had, and in 1970 I became a crew leader (we split crew into 2-15 man teams). For a newby it gave me the foundation of Wildland firefighting I carried for my 38 year career. I still occasionally think of him and the positive impact he had on my life.

Hal Mortier also has memories of his time on the crew:

Ron Campbell was my first supervisor in the Forest Service and a memorable one at that. He was a no-nonsense leader with very high standards and expectations on the job…yet a lot of fun and a friend off the job. Ron was a shaker and a mover as evidenced by his rapid assent through the ranks. I am certain I modeled some of my leadership style and qualities after Ron, a true pleasure to work with and for!

And from Rick Bondar:

He was a tough, smart, ballsy, son of a bitch, who scared the hell out of me my first year and whom I respected and was almost friends with my last 2-3 years on the crew. We would have followed him anywhere & DID.

At that time there was no standard training curriculum in the USFS for new firefighters. There were some films we could watch, but training standards and lesson plans were left up to the individual units or districts, at least on the Cleveland NF. The wheel was reinvented constantly when training was offered.

Rick Bondar (left) and Tom Sadowski
Rick Bondar (left) and Tom Sadowski working on the Basic 32 training program in 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

At his direction our crew developed a four-day basic training package for new firefighters which became known as the “Basic 32-hour Package”. It consisted of an instructor’s guide, a student workbook, and a slide-tape visual aid — slides synced to narrated audio on a tape. There were no personal computers then, and we made all of our graphics using hand-drawn images, artist supplies, press-on letters, and a 35mm camera. The illustrations of the “13 Situations that Shout Watchout” were drawn by a member of the crew during that time period. This was before 5 more situations were added, making it 18 Situations.

When the training package was finished in 1972 or 1973, it required a Wollensak cassette recorder to put it on which could recognize the slide advance tone, and a 35mm slide projector; the two were linked with a special cable. Eventually the program was converted to VHS tapes and was used with the workbooks in many locations around the country for training new firefighters.

Ron Campbell and Al Kuehl
Assistant Superintendent Al Kuel (left) and Ron Campbell at Lake Henshaw in 1970. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Quite a number of firefighters from the Ron Campbell El Cariso era moved on and up into leadership roles in firefighting and other fields. I have lost track of many of them, but at the risk of leaving some out, the list includes Gary Cones, Hal Mortier, Bob Drown, Charlie Phenix, Rick Bondar, Tom Sadowski, Allen Bond, Chuck Whitlock, Steve Jakala, Mike Herth, and Roger Seewald. They all worked on the crew between 1970 and 1972. Perhaps our readers can add to this list, especially for the years 1973 through 1975 after I moved on to engines and the Laguna Hot Shots.

El Cariso Hot Shots, 1970
El Cariso Hot Shots, 1970. Ron Campbell is in the front row, second from the left, with his arms folded. (click to see a larger version)

Tom Sadowski was on El Cariso from 1969 through 1972. From his home in Maine he sent us his memories of Ron.


“Ron Campbell

A Memorial

By Tom Sadowski

In 1969 I was 18 and Ron Campbell was, well he was older. You couldn’t tell how much older because he was always standing in the sun and you had to squint to make out the features on his face. It was my first time in sunny California and Ron Campbell seemed to be California to the core. He was blond and trim and he must have been experienced or the Forest Service wouldn’t have put him in charge. He never talked about his past but the guys had him pegged as ex Army Ranger or Marine; possibly Navy SEAL. Certainly he had smokejumper experience and very likely was on call for the CIA. His main concern was professionalism. He wanted to run the best crew with no flaws, no exception.

We immediately got off on the wrong foot. I was quite late for my first day of work because I had a letter, signed Ron Campbell, which specifically stated that long hair would not be acceptable. I took the time to shave my beard, find a barber shop and get most of my hair cut off before winding my way up the mountain.

As it was the dawning of the age of the hippy, the letter was very strongly worded. The warning about hair length overshadowed any mention about what time it was I was suppose to report for work. Anyway, I sort of felt like it was the same as reporting to summer camp: it didn’t really matter what time you got there on the first day. “Oh no,” said Ron Campbell and within 10 minutes of my arrival at El Cariso he had me out on the line swinging a hook at chamise and manzanita.

I came back to camp later that afternoon smelling like black sage and bleeding from the blisters on my hands and scratches on my face. Ron Campbell called me into his office which was a tiny cabin no bigger then four by eight feet with only enough room for his desk and a coffee pot, and Al Khuel’s desk who was the assistant superintendent, and for a few file cabinets and some office chairs. Ron Campbell stood me up against one of the bookcases and looked me up and down. “I thought we wrote you a letter stating that long hair would not be acceptable”.

What did this man want? This was the time of non-conformity and rebellion. Even though I drove 2500 miles to take this job in a National Forest that didn’t seem to have any trees, I’d be damned if this guy was going to tell me how I have to look in a job where I’m shaking hands with flammable shrubs all day long.

But Ron Campbell had other plans. He wasn’t about to let me quit. He already had me figured out. He would push me until I was about to quit and then he’d give me some slack until I came around, partially, to his way of thinking. Through Dan Bender, my first foreman, he got me and everyone else singing the same song. He was a crew builder and he built the best crews with no flaws, no exception.

It may seem odd but we used to play tetherball behind the mess hall where we had set up an obstacle course for physical training. Tetherball is fondly remembered by most people as a third grade schoolyard game where two players stand opposite each other with a steel pole in between them. Connected to this pole on a hefty cord is the tetherball. The object is to wrap the cord around the pole by hitting the ball with your hands which would be easy except that your opponent tries to wrap the cord around the pole in the opposite direction. The third grade version of the game is generally harmless but players in the school yard don’t usually have a combined weight exceeding 350 pounds and something to prove.

Ron Campbell and Bill Gabbert
Ron Campbell (left) and Bill Gabbert, tether ball, 1972. Photo by Tom Sadowski.

That summer a lot of the guys were nursing long scabs on their forearms not so much from tangling with the chaparral but as a result of rope burns from the tetherball. Hot Shot Tetherball games got so intense we had to impose the one rule that we also used when playing commando volleyball: No Knives.

Ron Campbell, as the cool headed superintendent who had an air about him indicating he was always in charge, had no time for these games.  (Editor’s note: there were exceptions as seen in the photo) Occasionally he would leave his office and just check in on us to make sure we weren’t killing each other or doing something so dangerous that he might have to console our parents. Ron was not big on consoling anyone as there should never be a need if everyone follows the rules. He never said it directly but it was very clear to us that if he ever did have to console our parents because something stupid we did caused our demise, he would make it a point to come to the hospital or wake us from the dead if need be and personally throttle us.

So on a particularly hot afternoon after defeating any challengers at the tetherball pole, I looked up to see Ron Campbell watching. We may have goaded him a bit because he never played but he came over to the pole and with the sun to his back he looked at me and said something like “Let’s see what you’ve got”.

Game on. We volleyed a bit to test each other and then got serious. Ron Campbell got in a few good hits and then I countered. I remember the ball came to me and I just happened to be in perfect position to hit it right in the sweet spot with all my might. The yellow sphere rocketed toward Ron Campbell who was no more than six feet away and hit him squarely in the face with a terrible crushing sound. It may have broken his nose but to my astonishment, Ron Campbell didn’t flinch. The ball ricocheted past my head as I stood there dumbfounded. That was it. As soon as it got back to him, he deftly accelerated it by me and above my reach until seconds later, he won the game.

I stayed with the crew for four seasons largely because of Ron Campbell. He was one of those influential figures who I think of often. Our beliefs may not have been on the same plane but we were united in purpose when it came to getting the job done. I moved on to fill a position as the assistant fire management officer at the Glennallen District in Alaska for the Department of Interior. I dealt with many fire crews and a lot of trying situations but thanks to Ron Campbell, to this day, I never flinch whenever I get hit in the face. OK, I will never be as stony as he was but I give it a go. Thank you, Ron Campbell.”

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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.

13 thoughts on “Ron Campbell, 1942 – 2013”

  1. Like so many of you Ron had a big impact on my life. I never worked so hard as I did the first few weeks in camp in 1970. It seemed like all we did was run, do P.T and cut line. Ron could challange you by just looking at you. He new when to let us wind down on a fire but he also knew how to get the most out of us. Him and Al were a pair that could not be beaten and they would not let us quit.
    Rest in Pease Ron:

  2. I am sorry to hear of Ron’s passing. He came out to Bella Vista and helped us remove several trees out of the goodness of his heart. I was a city kid and he patiently showed me how to use a chain saw and fell a tree. He was a good person and my life was better for having met him. God bless you Ron.

  3. I met Ron that first year back from service. I had worked for foremen previously, but they were always “layedbacK”. Ron was different. He instantly became someone I respected because he had a work ethic and knew what he wanted in his personell. Most important of all was when we reviewed my performance, our scores matched exactly and he knew that i was honest about myself. We became friends and through the years I always strove to win his approval even when I wasen’t working for him.
    Ron had a way with people. He could challenge you. Even if you were upset, You ended up doing a better job and eventually win his approval. He taught me to keep all the rules in mind but still think outside the box.
    To all you guys in the Forest Service who worked with or under Ron Campbell. The tanker crews, the Hot Shots, or the district employees, You had the pleasure of being around one of the best. He was not only a leader, he was a good friend. We will miss you Ron.

  4. Like so many others that have worked for Ron, I also have great respect for the life lessons he taught me during my younger malleable years. As a Superintendent he was the bridge between my post-highschool adolescence and my entry into the dynamic world of performance-driven work activities. As an AFMO, he taught me how important each action I took was to my career and to the safety of the firefighters working around me. He always had a way of asking “That Question” that left me puzzled and without a good answer. It was his way of forcing me to ponder what really was most important, to discover the answers in my own way, to understand why it was important to know, and to be assured that the next time he asked me the same question my answer to him would elicit that famous, big, and very rewarding Campbell smile. His motivations helped lead me to a successful, satisfying 35 year career with the Forest Service. He will be missed and long remembered!

  5. I have so many memories of Ron, both as my Superintendent in 1970, and later as my ADFMO when I moved into a prevention slot at San Juan. I remember on my wedding day at the end of the 1970 season, he, Al Kuehl and I were in the office at the old camp. He suddenly looked at me and said, “What the hell are you doing working on your wedding day? Get the hell out of here!” I also remember losing a bet to Ron. The winner got treated to dinner at DePalma’s Italian Village. Good thing our wives were there to drive us home! I’ll remember his lopsided grin forever. RIP RON.

  6. I have noticed that hotshot crews and incident management teams adopt, to a certain extent, the personalities of their Superintendents and Incident Commanders. I am thinking that this is also true for sports teams, military special forces teams, and any close-knit organization in which the people spend an extraordinary amount of time working closely together in an environment that can at times be high stress. Then you throw in an element of risk, requiring them to depend on each other for the safety of individuals and the team, and you have an organization that is capable of doing more than the sum of its parts, OR one that could implode in a disastrous manner.

  7. ECHS ’72 – ’73. This is very sad news. Like every firefighter during my time on the El Cariso Hot Shots, I had enormous respect and admiration for Ron Campbell. He brought out the best in me, and in the entire crew. He was tough, fair, demanding, and generous. He was one of the best guys I ever worked for.

    One of my favorite memories of Ron happened in ’73 (as I recall), during a early – season training exercise in the Laguna district. Nearly all of the Cleveland National Forest firefighters and tankers were there, as well as all the Forest brass: the Forest Superintendent, the District Rangers, the Fire Management Officers, and so forth. Ron as a hot shot superintendent was pretty far down on the totem pole.

    So the brass decides that it would be a really good training exercise to start a “small” brush fire, and let the tankers and hotshot crews bring it under control. During this exercise, Ron asked me to mind the store back at the “fire camp” as a radio operator.

    Sure enough, the “small” fire goes out of control, and things start to go to hell in a handbasket.

    Back at the fire camp, I start to see a really big column of smoke rise over the hill, and I’m listening to the radio as the various brass try to figure out what to do. Literally, their voices start to rise and crack, they argue back and forth, and I can hear panic start to set in. And then, after 10 or 15 minutes of chaos, I hear the calm confident voice of Ron Campbell, telling this tanker to move over to that spot, and that tanker to go to a certain road, and this crew to move in a certain direction and do a certain thing, and so forth. And without ever saying “I’m in charge,” Ron took over the entire effort, and became the fire boss. The brass went silent, and in an hour the fire was under control.

    That was Ron. Everyone trusted him, everyone had confidence in his decisions, everyone knew that he knew what he was doing.

    I have lots of fond memories of Ron, and a ton of respect. RIP buddy — and thanks for all you did to make me a better person.

    Bruce Lymburn

  8. ECHS ’72 & ’73. This is some difficult news to hear, as Ron Campbell was someone who had made a positive iinfluence in my life.. He made an immediate impact the first moment you met him and interacted with him. He has been strong in my memory all these years. Many describe him as, ‘The Best, Most Dynamic, Most Knowledgeable Firefighter I Ever Met’. The man had an uncanny, almost unbelievable ability to properly assess how a fire would play out with the current weather and terrain and fire behavior at hand. I always felt comfortable with him at the helm. He was aggressive against fires. He wanted wanted the toughest, most difficult fire assignments he could get for us, the piece of line that could ‘make the most difference…the one that would, ‘get the bastard put out’. Yet he always had our back safety-wise…paying special attention to crew-communications, safety-zones, weather-monitoring. I was one of the first recipients of the new fire-training program that he had pushed and had had Bill Gabbert, Rick Bondar, and others put together. It was the best training I could have ever imagined. Coming from the training I had received during summer firefighting in the Intermountain Region, it was truly like, ‘stepping into the Major Leagues’. Before I set foot on a fireline as an El Cariso Hot Shot, I felt like I was as well-trained as I could be, fire-fighting, wise. And yet he would take a hard line with us when he had too. I’ve never forgotten the ass-chewing we got on a bus one night up in Northern Calif. We had had some kind of tiff going on with the Oak Grove Hot Shots…some sort of testosterone-fueled thing involving ‘pride’ and reputation. Things had gotten to the point of where the crews were jaw-boning each other in fire camp with some minor insults, and the rumor was, that we were going to ‘settle it out’ with our fists or something along that line. Somehow Ron got wind of this. He got on the bus last, had the driver turn on the lights, then said, “Now listen up, goddamn it, all of you! This bull**** you’ve got going with Oak Grove is going to stop right now, you hear me? You need to all grow up and if I hear of one more person starting this up again, they’re gonna answer directly to me. It stops RIGHT NOW!” I don’t know if the Oak Grove crew got the same speech from their Superintendent, but there was never again a harsh or critical word spoken between us. What has always stuck in my mind about this was the ironity of it all. You could take one good look at Ron Campbell with his no-bull**** demeanor, his broken finger and scars, and you just knew that he had been in more than his own share of ‘dustups. A great memory of Ron was actually off-season. Not sure how I got the invite, but I went water skiing on his boat one day on Lake Elsinore with he and Bill Gabbert. You couldn’t put a price on ‘sharing some beers with this man’. Never forget it. RIP Ron Campbell.

    1. Yup Chet Cash said something similar I think him and Ron had a discussion about it. We were on a lot of Fires with El Cariso in those years I think it was more a competition between crews than actually personal. The Ducks and the woodpeckers were Hot Shots to the core. Great Times….

  9. I was at Kernville at the time Ron came to the district as DFMO. He brought strength and leadership to the Fire group that was needed at the time. We only wished he would have stayed longer. He had a definite commanding presence and we respected him. Condolences to his family.

  10. Oddly enough I’m sitting here at my laptop breaking in my final pair of Whites. Boy, faces in the B&W image really started jumping out at me even though it was ’72 that I worked El Cariso. I was proud to be part of that. My 3 seasons of wildfire in Colorado left me knowing that working on a SoCal brush crew would be the ultimate experience. Although life is the ultimate experience, El Cariso is ingrained deep within me. Such memories!

    I remember those runs up past Blue Jay and the hours of tedium in the yard sharpening tools or straightening the place up after calisthenics. And that multi-port latrine (Thank you Blue Goo!!!) And the “madness” (used quite loosely) of having crew races cutting practice line through dense chamise and manzanita; chainsaws, brush hooks, pulaskis and shovels but not Rick Bondar’s broom; aiming for that distant piece of flagging that maybe you, Bill, tied up there.

    Excellent memories. And I do remember Ron’s voice and his visage. Without waxing philosophic, “Goodbye Ron. Safe journey.”

    Lone Ranger

  11. I remember Ron from my Asst. Super. with Oak Grove HS in 72 and 73 he rebuilt the reputation of El Cariso and was respected in the Hot Shot community. Sorry to hear of his death.


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