Another look at the fatal Decker Fire of 1959

Decker Fire report map diagram
An illustration from the 1959 official report on the Decker Fire.

The Decker Fire of 1959, where six firefighters were killed near the U.S. Forest Service El Cariso fire station west of Lake Elsinore, California, is unique among fatal fires for several reasons: three members of the El Cariso Hotshots died, they were only a couple of miles from their home base, a U.S. Forest Service District Ranger was killed, and one of the primary factors that caused the extreme fire behavior was a locally well-known and predictable diurnal wind shift caused by the dry lake bed of Lake Elsinore that turned the flames against the firefighters, trapping and overrunning them on the Ortega Highway. In addition, this tragedy was followed seven years later by another, when the El Cariso Hotshots were overrun by flames on the Loop Fire on the Angeles National Forest in 1966, killing 12 more.

The official report did a pretty good job of explaining the important facts of August 8, 1959. But more than half a century later, a former firefighter who served on the El Cariso Hotshots from 1963 through 1966 conducted extensive research on what happened that day in 1959 and assembled many details that were not included in the U.S. Forest Service report. Julian Lee, Professor of Biology, Emeritus at The University of Miami (now living in New Mexico), made available to us his 27-page description of the Decker Fire. It is very well written and comprehensive, laying out the details of what occurred during and after the fire, as well as providing some analysis.

Mr. Lee’s sources included interviews and correspondence with individuals who were on the fire, CAL FIRE (CDF) documents, newspaper accounts, many USFS documents, training records, documents from ambulance companies, and verbatim transcripts of testimony given by surviving USFS personnel recorded a few days after the incident.

We thank Mr. Lee for his efforts to produce this valuable report, and for his permission to link to it and to post the excerpt below.

There were three burnovers on the fire, but since there were no radios most of the firefighters did not know about them right away unless they were directly involved.

Here is an account of the first, from Mr. Lee’s account:

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“GUTHRIE BURN-OVER

“… the east flank near the head of the fire blew up, making a run up the east side of Decker Canyon and crossing the Ortega Highway like it wasn’t there.”

While Ferguson was moving his crew out of harm’s way, Will Donaldson, a CDF Tank Truck Driver assigned to San Jacinto Station 26 miles to the northeast, was en route to the fire and listening to radio traffic. An early indication that something exceptional was unfolding on the steep slopes above Elsinore came when he heard a report of “… fire storms, and that something was happening on that fire.”

One of the things happening involved John D. Guthrie, a 25 year old CDF Tanker Foreman and his five man crew. They were one of two units dispatched to the Decker Fire from Old Temecula Station, about 18 miles southeast of the fire. Arriving at around 6:40 p.m., they headed up the Ortega Highway toward the fire, with Guthrie behind the wheel of an International tanker with a 500 gallon capacity. They pulled off at a turn-out at the hair-pin turn (Fig. 2).

Decker Fire Map
Map from Julian Lee’s report on the fatal Decker Fire. (Click to enlarge)

Guthrie got out and started down the steep bank to get a better look at the fire burning below. Almost immediately he came scrambling back to the truck, yelling for the men on the back of the truck to get into the cab and to move the truck farther up the road to the protection of the high bank at a nearby road cut. There wasn’t room for Guthrie in the cab; he remained outside, intending to use the tanker’s hose to wet himself down for protection. But suddenly, before they could move the truck, the fire burst upon them.

As the wall of flames engulfed the truck and its occupants, it burned through Guthrie’s hose line, rendering it useless and forcing him to dive under his truck for protection. As CDF tanker foreman Ferguson watched “… the east flank near the head of the fire blew up, making a run up the east side of Decker Canyon and crossing the Ortega Highway (near the hair-pin turn) like it wasn’t there.” He didn’t realize that Guthrie and his crew had been engulfed by the flames as the fire roared across the highway. This, the first of three burn-over events suffered by personnel fighting the Decker Fire, occurred at about 6:40 p.m.

Two of Guthrie’s crewmen, Art Shannon age 28, and Larry Mollers age 19, received serious burns to their arms and hands. Three others, Eugene Golden, Montie Campbell, and Jim Miller received lesser injuries, but Guthrie was burned over 85 percent of his body. He and his injured men were loaded into a CDF pick-up truck and driven to Lakeland Village at the base of the mountain.

There Guthrie was transferred to a 1953 Pontiac ambulance belonging to the Sunnymead Volunteer Fire Department. The ambulance driver headed for Hemet Hospital, but within a few miles the engine threw a piston rod. Coasting to a stop, the driver rushed into a nearby bar, explained their situation and asked to use the telephone. Upon hearing of their plight, a patron pushed the keys to his car across the bar and said, “Take my station wagon and put him in.” Guthrie was treated at Hemet Hospital, stabilized, and then transferred to a hospital in Redlands. He was the first firefighter to be critically burned on the Decker Fire.”

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Thanks and a tip of the hat go out Rich.

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+

One thought on “Another look at the fatal Decker Fire of 1959”

  1. Thanks Dr. Gabbert for sharing these reports. For us who started our wild fire careers in the mid 60’s these tragic events were fresh in our memories. Things change but stay the same. Events of this period (50-60’s) are contemporary lessons for today. Micro weather, terrain feature, weather, and fuel types have not changed significantly. As fire season 2016 approaches there will be some very interesting challenges for fire fighters. The vast areas of the Sierra Nevada’s west slope of dead pine and fir trees surrounding thousands of homes and communities may produce a new chapter of Mother Nature’s plan, designed for destruction.

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