Firestorm ’77 documentary released

Film about the fatal 1977 Honda Canyon Fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base in which four were killed

FIRESTORM 77 film documentary wildfire

A documentary about the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire is now available for streaming. Firestorm ’77 is based on Beyond Tranquillon Ridge, the book by Joseph N. Valencia about the brush fire that burned across Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast northeast of Santa Barbara. It started on December 20 during Santa Ana winds gusting to 100 mph and was fought by over a thousand personnel ranging from full time firefighters to military personnel who had zero experience or training in battling a wildfire.

There were multiple entrapments and 65 injuries. Four were killed.

The winds made the effort from the beginning futile, but military commanders, fearful of the base’s cold war secrets being compromised, attempted to control the strategy. In one case, when a General heard that a firing operation was planned he said he didn’t want any more fire on his base and it was not going to happen. Eventually, he relented.

Almost ten thousand acres burned resulting in significant damage to the military installation’s infrastructure. On the second day the winds were replaced by rain. The Air Force quickly declared it a victory, a battle won by its brave Airmen.

Remarkably, about 15 people who were on the fire 44 years ago were interviewed and appear in the film. Unsurprisingly they have a different take from the interpretation by the Air Force.

The film portrays the events in a way that has nothing in common with the 1998 movie with a similar name, Firestorm featuring NFL player Howie Long. The events are described in a serious, matter of fact manner through interviews with those who experienced it. It also addresses the effects it had on those firefighters, some of whom to this day are still dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One person still feels guilt, he says, and blames himself for a horrific injury that occurred to someone else.

The documentary could be a useful tool to begin a serious discussion about how firefighting practices have changed in the last 44 years. However, I was a firefighter in 1977 and I never saw a fire managed anything like this one, with decisions made by military officers with no fire experience, and attempting to suppress a fire during 100 mph winds with untrained personnel. One part of the film that could use improvement is the maps, which were a little crude and difficult for me to follow. Of course that comes from a guy who has made hundreds of fire maps, so I’m not your typical map consumer.

In addition to this documentary, a staff ride that has been developed to help transfer the lessons learned is described in the film by a member of the Vandenberg Hotshots, a crew that was created after the fire.

At the time of the fire, Mr. Valencia, the author of the book and producer of the film, was a 19-year old reserve firefighter and hotshot for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. He was part of the Santa Barbara County “Strike Team” that arrived early where he was involved in two burnovers and two rescues. After the fire he worked for 37 years in Aerospace and Defense programs at Vandenberg Air Force Base and Cape Canaveral, Florida.

I asked Mr. Valencia why he decided to create the documentary.

“The inspiration for the book and the film came from the night of the Honda Canyon Fire back on December 20th, 1977,” he wrote by email. “That night, I felt it very necessary to pray to God to say goodbye to my loved ones, and I asked for God…to save my life. Like many who face situations like this in war or other life or death moments, I prayed that I would do anything that God asked of me, if he could just “spare my life.” I honestly believe that this book and film — is what God asked of me, and it originated from that prayer! I am fulfilling a promise.

“Fast forward many years…

“In 2016 I met Dennis Ford, who was a US Air Force Augmentee on the fire, and who read my book Beyond Tranquillon Ridge. “Dennis was full of anger about the fire, about how Officers sent them out there with no training or proper tools to fight a wind-driven wildfire. He remembered standing at the bottom of a canyon at o-dark-thirty, intuitively knowing that if the fire changed direction and it came towards him, he would not be able to outrun it, and he would meet his maker.

“Dennis and I struck up a conversation, and he indicated he was taking a Film class at Allan Hancock College in Santa Maria. Dennis approached his film studies professor, Mr. Chris Hite, and told him about the fire, and to see if he would be interested in creating a film about the fire. Chris Hite was immediately taken by the story and agreed to give his time and effort to this documentary.

“The three of us Chris Hite (filmmaker), Dennis Ford (Director) and me Joe Valencia (Producer/Author) soon began a four-year journey in to creating our film FireStorm ’77. We all believed in this film, and in telling the story of what happened. All of us feel a little bit of serendipity as to what we have done, where we are, and why it all happened!

“By the way, I think this film has had positive healing effects on myself, Dennis Ford, and the other firefighters we interviewed in the film. The film shows the psychological effects on us all, that the book doesn’t really show.”

Mr. Valencia also wrote Area Ignition: The True Story Of The Spanish Ranch Fire.

Firestorm ’77  has been selected for 33 film festivals. It is streaming on iTunes, GooglePlus, YouTube, and MagellanTV. The cost on YouTube is $4 to rent or $5 to buy.

The official trailer is below.

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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.

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