Romero fire memorial site rebuilt to honor 4 killed in 1971 blaze

After 2017 Thomas Fire destroys longstanding tribute to crew members Thomas Klepperich, Leonard Mineau, Delbert DeLoach and Richard Cumor, firefighters and neighbors pitch in to replace it

Romero Fire Memorial rebuilt
A crew of firefighters gathers for a moment of silence after completing the restoration of the 1971 Romero Fire Memorial site above Summerland. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

This article by guest author Ray Ford was first published in Noozhawk, and is used here with permission.

[Noozhawk’s note: The first part of this story is taken from the author’s book, Santa Barbara Wildfires, published in 1990. The author participated in the building of the new memorial site.]

On Oct. 6, 1971, Pat Russ was driving to San Jose to visit his estranged wife when the urge to start another fire overwhelmed him.

Near Goleta he turned off Highway 101 and began driving along Cathedral Oaks, Foothill and other back roads looking for just the right spot — one that was isolated enough, with thick brush and a steep enough slope for the flames to take off.

He found the spot at about 3:30 p.m. near Bella Vista Drive between Romero Canyon and Ladera Lane in Montecito. Patrols had driven by at 9 and 10:30 a.m. and again at 2 p.m., just 90 minutes earlier.

But there was no one there to see Russ at that moment.

Turning around, carefully looking around to make sure that no one was watching, he lit the fuse on a small homemade firebomb, tossed it out the window and drove off slowly so as not to attract any attention.

He then continued on his long drive north, unaware of what he had left behind.

The fire was discovered at 3:57 p.m. by a neighbor who reported it immediately to the Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Department.

Fire Blows Up
Within five minutes after the report of the fire, the smoke column had risen to 1,500 feet. Photos taken about that time indicated that the Romero Fire had already blackened 30-40 acres. During the initial attack period, lasting from 4:08 to 5 p.m., firefighting forces poured in to the area from all over the South Coast.

Romero Fire Memorial rebuilt
Stone markers are now in place at the north, east, west and south spots in the Romero Fire Memorial circle. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

But by 6 p.m. the wildfire had already spread to the crest of East Camino Cielo, burning rapidly through the grass-covered fuel break. Thankfully, because the break was wide, and the grass was burning at a low intensity, the pumpers were able to douse the flames there.

Shortly after dark, a sundowner developed, and as in the 1964 Coyote Fire, the fire line turned and began to make a downhill run, burning on a hot, wide front that swept across Bella Vista and Ladera Lane, destroying four homes.

By daylight Thursday, the fire had burned through all of Toro Canyon, from its base at Highway 192/East Valley Road to the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains, an eastward spread of about 2 miles during the night. As of 6 a.m., 3,600 acres had burned.

Weather Forecast
The plan for Thursday was to hold the fire at the fuel break on the top and construct a line along the bottom flank to keep the fire from spreading down into Summerland and the Carpinteria foothills.

Fire officials were heartened by the weather forecast for that evening. Issued at 2:30 p.m., northerly downslope winds were predicted for the evening, mostly light, with only occasional gusts to 15 mph down the main canyons.

A revised update was even more optimistic, with winds not to exceed 8 mph, humidity in the range of 80 to 90 percent, and the possibility of fog below the fire camp by the next morning.

“If we can bulldoze from the lower end of the canyon on a line diagonal to the fire and make it to the top of the hills over there,” a State Division of Forestry official said, “we might have a chance to pinch it off.”

Romero Fire Memorial rebuilt
The crew begins work leveling the site, digging holes for the markers and centering the stone bench. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

If, meaning if the winds stayed favorable, and if there were no setbacks, and if there were no unexpected surges elsewhere.

Bulldozers Are Deployed
A team of four bulldozers, each with two-man crews, was assigned to construct a pincer line along the eastern edge of the fire from the base of the mountain up along the edge of Santa Monica Canyon north of Carpinteria. By early evening things looked good.

In the sky above, bombers were trying to dump as much retardant on the head of the fire as possible before it got dark. It looked then as if Hud Banks’ prayers would be answered.

At the time, no one dreamed that in four hours four men would die in smoldering Santa Monica Canyon, that others would be severely burned, and that another would come within a hair’s breath of losing his life.

By 9 p.m., running short on fuel and ready for a new shift to replace them, the tractor crew turned back toward the Carpinteria Valley. On the way down, the men continued to improve and widen the track they had made earlier, at one point dropping down a spur ridge into Santa Monica Canyon, the tractors four abreast, to improve access to that area.

Sundowner Turns Deadly
Just as they began to work their way up the ridge and back to the main line, severe down canyon winds commenced, and with a great deal more force than predicted.

The winds were turbulent and extremely dry, and they caused the entire eastern flank of the fire to come alive, particularly along the lower half of the line where the eight men were working.

The 900-pound stone bench marks the center of the area where bulldozer operators Thomas Klepperich and Leonard Mineau and firefighters Delbert DeLoach and Richard Cumor died in the 1971 Romero Fire. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

Suddenly, they found themselves in a desperate situation.

While hundreds of spectators lined Carpinteria Valley roads and streets to watch the fire’s downhill surge, unmindful of the tragedy unfolding above them, Jerry Hotchkiss and another dozer operator, Leonard Kaiser, ran down into the canyon, trying to outrace the flames.

They didn’t make it, but still they were fortunate. When the two men staggered out of the brushy inferno, their clothes on fire and their exposed flesh burned and blistered, at least they were still alive.

Four others — dozer operators Thomas Klepperich and Leonard Mineau and firefighters Delbert DeLoach and Richard Cumor, who were serving as their swampers — were not so lucky. Caught between the potential escape route down Santa Monica Canyon and almost sure safety up on the ridge line, the men choose the uphill route.

They were found at 2 a.m., three of them beneath their tractors, where they had taken refuge as they had been taught to do. The fourth man was found about 15 feet away, near a toppled Edison tower that melted from the extreme heat.

The combination of heat and fire had literally sucked the air out of the men’s lungs and they died even before the flames touched them. On one of the victims was a charred watch, stopped at 10 p.m., the time apparently of their deaths.

Memorial Site Created
Not long after the last flames had died down, a number of firefighters gathered near the site to pay their respects to their fallen comrades.

“We never forget our own,” one of the men said.

With four crosses in hand, the group quietly walked to the point on the edge where the four men had died, placing markers in the locations where each of them had perished.

Almost 50 years later, another group of Santa Barbara County firefighters returned to the site on April 17, 2017, with freshly painted white crosses to reinforce the original markers that were becoming weakened with age.

Romero Fire Memorial rebuilt
April 17, 2017: The stabilization complete, three markers note the location of the bulldozer that three of the victims had sought shelter under. (Tyler Gilliam file photo)

Even a half-century later, Klepperich, Mineau, DeLoach and Cumor would not be forgotten.

The overgrown chaparral was quickly cleared to open up the memorial site, the new crosses hammered into the ground behind the original ones and fastened to them with screws, with the hope that they would remain in place for another 50 years.

Unfortunately, that was not to be the case.

Seven months later, the Thomas Fire ignited on the night of Dec. 4, 2017, near Santa Paula in Ventura County. Although the wildfire started more than 40 miles away, it took just six days for the flames to reach the old Romero fire scar and turn the four crosses to ash.

A Determination to Restore
With the help of three nearby property owners who donated $10,000 to rebuild the site, including the one on whose property the memorial is located, the firefighters returned again to the site.

The area was burned down to mineral soil and no sign of the four wooden crosses could be found anywhere. Regardless, they were determined to restore it once again.

Plans were drawn up for a new design that would (hopefully) be fire proof, given the inevitable fact that the area will burn again.

The new design is for a circular site with four stone markers at the cardinal points with the names of the firefighters inscribed on each. Centered in the middle is a stone bench inscribed simply, “Romero Fire, 1971.”

Memorial Day
On Aug. 19, more than 25 members of local firefighting agencies gathered near the site with the goal of installing the posts and bench, adding a circular border and filling it with light gold-colored gravel.

No one was quite sure how the memorial would turn out and, given the weight of the stone markers and stone bench, how difficult it would be to get the material up to the site.

It turns out that 25 strong, young firefighters can do most anything. The markers were hauled down from above and, thanks to the use of a small trailer attached to an ATV, the crew was able to get it up from below.

By 3 p.m., with the markers in place and the bench centered between them, the work was almost complete. One last thought was to spray the gravel with water to help settle it in place.

Romero Fire Memorial rebuilt
Final raking of the gravel and hosing off of the site to help settle the rock. (Ray Ford / Noozhawk photo)

With radio in hand, one of the crew leaders called for an engine crew to join the party. Fifteen minutes later, we could spot the engine immediately above us. A hose to the site was quickly laid down and one of the crew began to hose down the gravel.

Amazingly, the rock tuned a beautiful golden color and the whole site slowly began to take on a golden hue that seemed to light up the sky. The firefighters gathered round the circle, sharing a moment of silence as a final gesture of respect for the four who died years before any of them had been born.

“It’s our duty,” one of them said, “to respect and memorialize those who’ve fallen along the way.”

Come next spring, the site will be formally presented to surviving members of those who died that night on the Romero Fire.

Noozhawk outdoors writer Ray Ford can be reached at Click here for his website, Follow him on Twitter: @riveray. The opinions expressed are his own.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Susan. Typos or errors, report them HERE.

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+

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