Above: Hundreds of firefighters from municipal and wildland departments attended the 50th anniversary memorial for the Loop Fire tragedy in Sylmar Tuesday. Present were the Los Angeles County Fire Department, Los Angeles Fire Department, US Forest Service, CAL FIRE, and many other agencies.
November 1 marked the 50th anniversary of the day that 12 wildland firefighters perished on the Loop Fire. The El Cariso Hotshots were constructing fireline on the Angeles National Forest in southern California in 1966 when the fire blew up below them.
Yesterday hundreds of people attended a commemoration event held at El Cariso Regional Park in Sylmar, California. Having been on the crew four years after the disaster, from 1970 through 1972, I wish I could have been there. But Stuart Palley, an accomplished fire photographer, was, and he took these excellent photos and wrote the captions. Thanks Stuart for allowing us to use them here.
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:
“… 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).
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.”
The Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal has a well written article about a group of nine men from Mississippi that in the early 1960s traveled west to work on the El Cariso Hotshots in southern California. Many of them still live in the area around Tupelo, Mississippi and occasionally meet to share war stories.
I like how the article ends:
…They were young and immortal once, and traveled west to put that immortality to the test. They were brave and maybe a little crazy, but don’t call them stupid.
“If you went out there for the third year, you got to be a smokejumper. They dropped you in a parachute to fight fires,” Floyd said. “We were all smart enough not to go back the third year.”
I grew up in Mississippi and unknowingly followed in their footsteps a decade or so later, applying for the El Cariso job through the Forestry School’s Summer Student Employment Program at Mississippi State University. My application didn’t have the endorsement of a politician (like one of these gentlemen), but I had a previous season of experience working on a Timber Stand Improvement Crew on the Mendocino National Forest running a chain saw all day every day. I spent three seasons on El Cariso before moving on to the newly formed Laguna Hotshots — then engines, prevention, engines again, and Fire Management Officer.
At 6:15 a.m. PT on September 26, 1970 the Laguna Fire started on Mt. Laguna east of San Diego near the intersection of Kitchen Creek Road and the Sunrise Highway. By the time it was stopped on Oct. 3 1970 it had burned 175,425 acres, killed eight civilians, and destroyed 382 homes. In the first 24 hours the fire burned 30 miles, from Mount Laguna, California into the outskirts of El Cajon and Spring Valley, devastating the communities of Harbison Canyon and Crest. Previously known as the Kitchen Creek Fire and the Boulder Oaks Fire, it was, at its time, the second largest fire in the history of California.
The Laguna fire started from downed power lines during a Santa Ana wind event. Santa Anas are warm, dry winds that characteristically appear in Southern California during autumn and early winter. They can be typically caused by a pressure differential between a high in the Great Basin and a low in the eastern sub-tropical Pacific.
Richard Raybould, Fire Control Officer on the Descanso District of the Cleveland National Forest, was the first Fire Boss on the fire. Shortly after it started he was told by the Cleveland National Forest dispatcher that due to other large fires burning in southern California at the time, there were no organized crews available. The 40 to 60 mph winds made the use of firefighting aircraft impossible.
By noon the day it started the fire was divided into three Zones, each with a Fire Boss. Zone Fire Bosses included at various times, Richard Raybould, Howard Evans, Lynn Biddison, and Baldwin (unknown first name). The Zones were overseen by a General Headquarters, or GHQ, headed by Myron Lee, the Forest Fire Control Officer for the Cleveland National Forest.
The Laguna Fire and the others that occurred in southern California in September of 1970 led to the development of the Incident Command System (ICS) which morphed into the National Incident Management System (NIMS).
The day the Laguna fire started I was a crewmember on the El Cariso Hot Shots, and we were mopping up a brush fire near Corona a couple of hours north of the Laguna Fire.. We heard the radio traffic that morning about the new fire and the reports that it was cranking. It was The Big One. And there we were, stuck doing the dreaded mopup on a fire that was pretty much out. For hours we kept poking around trying to find something hot to put out, as we kept hearing more about the fire on Laguna Mountain that was hauling ass. We wanted to be there.
Finally, late in the afternoon we were dispatched to it. By the time we got to Pine Valley it was after sunset, and for some reason, I, a first-year hot shot, was in the pickup with Ron Campbell, the Superintendent. The two open-top crew carriers were behind us. As we drove into Pine Valley the hills adjacent to the community to the south and east were alive with the orange flames of the fire. The one radio channel we had on the Cleveland National Forest was completely jam-packed with radio traffic. You could not get a word in edgewise. We knew that this was going to be one that we would remember.
We worked on the fire all that night and then pulled several more shifts before we were transferred to the Boulder 2 fire in Cuyamaca State Park, which was a rekindle from the Boulder fire.
The video below Countdown to Calamity, documents the fire siege in southern California that occurred in late September, 1970, including “the fire destined to dwarf all the others”, the Laguna Fire.
…Physically and mentally, the demands of the profession are such that Charles Palmer, an associate professor at The University of Montana who studies performance psychology of wildland firefighters, considers such workers “tactical athletes.”
“These aren’t people who ride around trucks and squirt water on stuff — this is really demanding from a lot of different angels,” Palmer said. “You travel around, you have to perform, they’re getting very little downtime, they have nutritional challenges … physically you have to perform really well.”
In one study, Palmer screened wildland firefighters for attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). He said about 20 percent tested above the established cutoff score.
“It’s very possible a high percentage of folks who work as wildland firefighters have ADHD,” he said. “If you start thinking about a profile, people with ADHD are very comfortable with risk. They like fast-paced environments. They like activity. They like moving around.”
Front-line firefighters burn between 4,000 and 6,500 calories each day and need 7-10 liters of water each day, said Brent Ruby, director of the University of Montana’s work physiology department.
“Perhaps the top 10-15 percent of the average population can do this job based on fitness levels,” said Joe Domitrovich, an exercise physiologist with the National Forest Service.
But the Marshawn Lynch comparisons only go so far.
“They don’t get paid like a professional athlete would,” Palmer said. A 2013 National Parks brochure advertises pay of about $10-17 an hour to firefighters, before overtime or hazard pay, but base pay varies widely. Base pay for entry-level state Department of Natural Resources wildland firefighters starts at $12.50…