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.

Firefighters on Falls fire observe anniversary of Decker Fire

Firefighters on the Falls Fire at Lake Elsinore, California today are wrapping up the incident. It is in the same location as the Decker Fire exactly 54 years ago today that killed six firefighters. This morning a moment of silence was observed on the fire in memory of those six. Three of them were members of the El Cariso Hotshots.

On August 8, 1959 the Hotshots and engine crews were on the Ortega Highway above the fire firing out along the highway. The bowl where the fire occurred has an unusual but predictable diurnal wind pattern, with downslope breezes during the afternoon that stop at about 8 p.m. With the fire below them, the wind stopped at 8 p.m. and several large fire whirls developed on the fire that traveled up the slope, entrapping the firefighters.

The diagram below is from a report about the fire and shows the tactics being used just before the blowup. Click it to see a larger version.

Decker Fire diagramThe maps below are from our article about the Falls Fire. The red squares represent heat detected by a satellite before the fire spread east across the South Main Divide and down through the bowl where the Decker Fire fatalities occurred. Click on them to see larger versions.

Map of Falls Fire at 1:47 p.m. PDT, August 5, 2013
Map of Falls Fire at 1:47 p.m. PDT, August 5, 2013, showing heat detected by a satellite. The red squares indicating heat can be as much as a mile in error. (click to enlarge)
3-D Map of Falls Fire at 1:47 p.m. PDT, August 5, 2013
3-D Map of Falls Fire at 1:47 p.m. PDT, August 5, 2013, looking northwest. The red squared represent heat detected by a satellite; they can be as much as a mile in error. (click to enlarge)

A current map of the Falls Fire is on InciWeb.

This article was corrected  on 8/8/2013 to show that a total of six firefighters were killed. Five died during or shortly after the incident, and a sixth passed away five weeks later from his burn injuries. The fire report referenced above indicates that only five were killed but must have been prepared before the sixth person died.

Loop fire survivor talks

Loop Fire 1966
Loop Fire, November 1, 1966

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has published the video below featuring Gerald Smith, a survivor of the 1966 Loop Fire on the Angeles National Forest in southern California visiting the site of the tragedy. The video is very powerful. Mr. Smith reads a letter from one of the other victims that was written while he was in the hospital shortly before he passed away. Mr. Smith also talks about his 20-year struggle after the burnover, dealing with the lingering effects and the eventual positive outcome.

 

On November 1, 1966, the El Cariso Hotshots were trapped by flames as they worked on a steep hillside in Pacoima Canyon on the Angeles National Forest.

Ten members of the crew perished on the Loop Fire that day. Another two members succumbed from burn injuries in the following days. Most of the nineteen members who survived were critically burned and remained hospitalized for some time.

Lessons learned from the Loop Fire resulted in the checklist for downhill line construction, improved firefighting equipment, better fire behavior training, and the implementation of new firefighter safety protocols.

The El Cariso Hot Shots experienced another tragedy in 1959 when three members of the crew were entrapped and killed on the Decker Fire near Elsinore, California.

Wildland firefighter memorial dedicated in California

Dedication of the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial
Dedication of the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial. Photo: Southwest Riverside News Network

After two decades of planning and overcoming funding shortfalls, the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial was dedicated on Saturday west of Elsinore, California off the Ortega Highway about two miles from the location of the 1959 Decker fire which killed six firefighters. It is a few hundred yards east of the U. S. Forest Service El Cariso engine station, which is across the highway from the former location of the El Cariso Hot Shot camp. I worked at both places in the 1970s.

More than 300 firefighters and family members paid tribute at the memorial which will display about 200 plaques in remembrance of the 400 people who died fighting wildland fires in California.

Here is an excerpt from an article at SWNN.com:

After more than 50 years, Carlo Guthrie still cries over her husband’s death—and on Saturday, her tears were bittersweet. Carlo, the wife of fallen California Division of Forestry fire truck driver John Guthrie, was among the more than 300 who gathered for the dedication of the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial off the Ortega Highway.

“The tears will never stop. I bet you everything when there’s a wildland fire, there’s widows out there watching that fire, I always am,” she said. “And now there’s a place where John and all California firefighters who gave the ultimate sacrifice can be honored.”

The memorial site sits off the Ortega in the hills above Lake Elsinore, and near the grounds where crews battled the deadly 1959 Decker blaze, which claimed the life of John and five other firefighters.

It serves as a spot where families, comrades and survivors can reflect. The memorial consists of a red brick Maltese cross, guarded by a rock wall with fire plaques embossed with the names of fatal fires, the county, year and the number of fire personnel lost in the blaze. The ground in front of the monument is covered in red bricks engraved with the names of fallen firefighters.

Photos and more details about the dedication ceremony.

Web site for the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial

The Decker fire, 51 years ago today

On August 8, 1959 the El Cariso Hot Shots experienced the first of two fire tragedies El Cariso would be involved in. The fire was the Decker Fire located in the foothills above Lake Elsinore, California. Seven people were overrun by six and lost their lives. Three were members of the El Cariso Hotshot Crew.

For more info:
http://www.wildfirelessons.net/documents/Decker_Fire_1959.pdf

Loop fire, 43 years ago

On November 1, 1966, the El Cariso Hotshots were trapped by flames as they worked on a steep hillside in Pacoima Canyon on the Angeles National Forest.

Ten members of the crew perished on the Loop Fire that day. Another two members succumbed from burn injuries in the following days. Most of the nineteen members who survived were critically burned and remained hospitalized for some time.

Lessons learned from the Loop Fire resulted in the checklist for downhill line construction, improved firefighting equipment, better fire behavior training, and the implementation of new firefighter safety protocols.