A classic film: “Watershed Wildfire”

movie "Watershed Wildfire"
movie "Watershed Wildfire"
A radio seen in the movie “Watershed Wildfire”

When I first started as a firefighter on the El Cariso Hot Shots in 1970 we were shown a lot of training films. One of them was about the 1955 Refugio Canyon Fire, titled “Watershed Wildfire”. It describes how firefighters fought the fire near Santa Barbara, California, which was 77,000 or 85,000 acres depending on the report, and how an early version of a Burned Area Emergency Response (BAER) team worked quickly after the fire was out to stabilize slopes and reduce the chances of flooding and damage to reservoirs.

Even in 1970 it had the air of an old, classic film with a dramatic custom-written musical sound track, antique trucks, and firefighters with no personal protective equipment. A packset “HandiTalky” radio weighing several pounds with a remote telephone-like handset was shown as the narrator said, “The firefighters’ arsenal was equipped with the latest weapons”. Later he says “It takes trained men to fight fire”, a statement that perhaps needed to be said in 1955. Marines are seen using military flame throwers to ignite a backfire or burnout and later biplanes reseed the barren slopes.

The Santa Barbara Independent has an interesting article about the fire.

Now you can have the pleasure of viewing this classic film. The sound is pretty bad at first, but it improves 90 seconds in.

If the video will not play on your device click HERE to see it on YouTube.


Thanks go out to Jim

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. Google+

8 thoughts on “A classic film: “Watershed Wildfire””

  1. That’s a great video! Not only for telling the story of early BAER type work, but telling the story of large fire suppression in the 1950s.

  2. This is probably the best old firefighting video I’ve seen. Its amazing how much, and how little has changed. Old trucks and jeeps, open cab dozers, marines with flamethrowers, signaling aircraft by flag. Many of the changes have been exceptional, however some have not. In these days of NEPA, how often these days can the USFS aerial-seed 65,000 acres in 21 days after a fire to prevent erosion

    1. Joseph, do you have an iPad2? I understand some of them have trouble playing embedded videos. It is a bug in Safari.

      There is a video on YouTube that addresses this issue and talks about “unhiding” the YouTube app on your device. You might give that a try.

      Another thing to try is to click the pause button and then the play button.

      And, here is a link to an Apple support thread that has several recommended possible fixes.

  3. I remember watching this as a training film at Oak Flat station on the LP in 1981!!!! Can you get any of the other old classics?

  4. 85000 acres put out for $800,000.00 about $10.00 an acre ( $81.00/acre in 2013 dollars.). The Rim burned 256,000 acres and cost $113,000.000.00 or about $425.00/acre to put out. Times really have changed, perhaps the old techniques need to be revisited…

  5. If the military did not charge for providing their troops back during the era of the Watershed fire, and if volunteers were widely used, that would skew comparisons to modern wildland firefighting costs. And, modern environmental protection sensitivities and special care in handling a high-value, high-profile resource such as Yosemite may have added more costs.

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