1959 Decker Fire memories

We got a note today from Anna Dailey about the 1959 Decker Fire, which Bill Gabbert wrote about back in 2013. Three of the six firefighters killed on the Decker were El Cariso Hotshots — Bill Gabbert’s old crew.

Boyd Edwards, El Cariso Hotshots
Boyd “Mike” Edwards, El Cariso Hotshots

“I just read the report on the Decker Fire of 1959. My 2nd cousin Boyd M. Edwards was killed on that fire. Although Boyd, or Mike as the family called him, was killed about 2½ years before I was born, I grew up knowing how his death devastated our family. Not much was shared with me regarding his death, all I knew was that he died the summer after high school graduation fighting a fire. Now I know many of the details and I was in tears reading it. RIP to everyone who lost their lives that day and the days that followed.”

Anna attached a picture of Boyd, who was buried in Huntington Beach, California. She said she never knew until reading Gabbert’s report this week that her cousin lasted 8 days in the hospital before he succumbed to his injuries.

(NOTE in Gabbert’s 2013 news post that there used to be a report about the Decker Fire on wildfirelessons.net and it’s no longer there. The 1959 report is HERE.)

Bill Gabbert wrote in 2016:
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.”

Map from Julian Lee’s report on the fatal Decker Fire:

Map from Julian Lee’s report on the fatal Decker Fire.


The Decker fire, 51 years ago today


Decker fire, 50 years ago today

Tom Sadowski, El Cariso Hotshots, 1969-1972

Tom Sadowski
Tom Sadowski. Photo by Bill Gabbert, circa 1972.

A former El Cariso Hotshot passed away unexpectedly on June 16. Tom Sadowski was on the crew from 1969 through 1972.

Tom was unique — if you spent much time with him you would remember him. He was one of the smartest people I ever met. I learned from him. As young and dumb as I was, I had much room in my little brain for knowledge about wildland firefighting and how the world works. For a year we were roommates in the hotshot barracks up the hill from the hotshot camp in the Orange County facilities. At night there was not much to do so we talked or read. He taught me a great deal about photography and with his guidance I purchased my first 35mm camera of my own, a Minolta, after using a very old Argus that was my mom’s.

One year Tom drove with his girlfriend from his home in New England 2,500 miles to our base near Elsinore, California in a very old, army surplus jeep. He was pulled over more than once for driving too slow.

He admired well-built machinery that was made to last with heavy duty materials. We were on a fire in Wyoming and Tom had climbed on top of a large old water tender to check it out. I was taking a picture of him with my old beat-up Argus. When I pressed the shutter, I could hear and feel the guts of the camera come apart. I shook it and it rattled, which is never a good sign. I blamed Tom then for breaking my camera. I still do. I took a picture of him and he literally broke the damn camera.

Tom Sadowski
Tom Sadowski resting on a cot and a paper sleeping bag. Photo by Bill Gabbert, around 1971.

When Tom was on the crew there was no standard training curriculum in the USFS for new firefighters. At the direction of crew Superintendent Ron Campbell our crew developed a four-day basic training package which became known as the “Basic 32-hour Package”.

Tom taught us how to build a slide program of illustrations, graphics, photos, narration, and visual aids that was automatically advanced by silent cues on a taped narration.

There were no personal computers then, and we made all of our graphics using hand-drawn images, artist supplies, press-on letters, and a 35mm camera, mostly Tom’s, but I also contributed some images.

Tom Sadowski
Rick Bondar (L) and Tom Sadowski in 1972 working on what became the Basic 32-hour Fire Training for new employees.

When the training package was finished in 1972 or 1973, it required a Wollensak cassette recorder and a 35mm slide projector, but eventually was converted to VHS tapes and was used with the workbooks in many locations around the country for training new firefighters.

In 1972 Tom and I sent some of our fire photos and a proposal to National Geographic hoping they would pay us handsomely. We received a very nice declination letter from someone there named, and I have not forgotten this, “Smokey”. He explained that they liked our photos, but that they had done a wildland fire story 3-4 years before and it was too soon to do another one.

After fighting fires in Southern California Tom worked for the BLM in Alaska and worked his way up to the position of Assistant Fire Management Officer. In the 1980s I visited him at his home on a hill that had a very nice view of Anchorage. I knew he was an excellent photographer, but was surprised to see that he had a full-blown studio with fancy lighting and various backgrounds on spools that could be pulled down behind his subject.

In 2008 Tom recreated the El Cariso Hotshots logo for the commemoration of their 50th year. I’m not sure that he ever received proper credit for that project.

In his later years Tom lived in Maine and for a while he and his wife ran a women’s clothing store and later a restaurant and bar.

He and I stayed in touch by email exchanging messages every one to three years.

He wrote a regular humor column, “Just Saying”, that ran in at least one newspaper, The Free Press in Maine, where an archive of his columns is still available. If you only read one, check out a tribute to him written by Ethan Andrews, “Remembering Tom Sadowski”, which includes Tom’s own thoughts about how to write his “autobituary”. (UPDATE Dec. 26, 2021: The previous three links no longer work, but the WayBackMachine has retained some of the archives.)

Tom Sadowski
Tom Sadowski in 1975. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

We have published some of Tom’s writings on Wildfire Today. In 2013 he contributed a large section of our tribute to former El Cariso Superintendent Ron Campbell.  In 2015 he wrote about the passing of Fred Rungee, “Alaska resident, forest fire control veteran and humanitarian.”

Continue reading “Tom Sadowski, El Cariso Hotshots, 1969-1972”

TBT: working for Ron Campbell

For Throwback Thursday, we are revisiting an article I wrote October 11, 2013 shortly after finding out about the death of Ron Campbell. It was titled, “Ron Campbell, 1942 – 2013”.

We recently found out that a former U.S. Forest Service district Fire Management Officer and Superintendent of the El Cariso Hotshots passed away in April. Ron Campbell for the last 13 years had been dealing with a variety of medical issues, including cancer as well as heart and liver failures. He had been living in Redding, California and was 72 years old.

Ron Campbell at El Cariso Hotshot Camp, 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.
Ron Campbell at El Cariso Hotshot Camp, 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

I worked for Ron on El Cariso for three years. He was by far the best supervisor I ever had. He became more than that — a friend.

This news comes a couple of weeks after we found out that the El Cariso Hot Shots have been disbanded, at least until next year — two blows that feel like a punch to the gut for those who knew Ron or worked on the crew.

He started with the U.S. Forest Service in 1961 as a firefighter on the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California. In 1963 he was promoted to Driver at Alpine working for Chuck Mills and later worked at Descanso. He was a smokejumper at Redding in 1964 for one summer then he worked in fire prevention and was station foreman at Japatul and Mt. Laguna on the Cleveland NF. He was Superintendent of the El Cariso Hot Shots from 1969 until 1975 when he transferred to the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California as Assistant Fire Management Officer on the Yolla Bolly Ranger District. Two years later he transferred to the Sequoia as district Fire Management Officer at Kernville. In 1979 he left the USFS to work with his brother as a private contractor on slash removal and fuel modification projects.

Before I was on El Cariso I worked for one summer on the Mendocino National Forest in northern California running a chain saw on a timber stand improvement (TSI) crew, thinning young Douglas Fir stands. I went to “fire school”, got a Red Card, and worked on three small fires that summer. I decided that fighting fire was more fun than thinning trees and in 1970 got a job on El Cariso with the help of a USFS college student summer work program through my school, Mississippi State University.

Kenny Tortez and Ron Campbell
Kenny Tortez, Supt. of Del Rosa Hotshots (left) and Ron Campbell on the way to a fire with their two crews in 1971. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Ron was skeptical of me at first, since I got the job through a non-traditional method. He pushed me harder, I thought, than most of the others on the crew, but maybe everyone thought the same thing about themselves. Eventually he came around to the fact that I had chain saw experience and made me a sawyer on the crew. One of my fellow firefighters thought I was stupid for disclosing that I knew how to run a chain saw, saying it was the hardest job. I was shocked the next year when I became one of the crew foremen.

Ron was able to see things in people, tap into their strengths, and help them develop their potential. We did a great deal of training on the crew, more than most wildland firefighters did in the 1970s. He knew how to inspire people and challenged us to become students of fire.

I asked Charlie Phenix what he remembered about Ron:

I was on the El Cariso crew 1969-1970 and Ron was the Superintendent. The crew was 30 men and most were new. I remember him as bigger than life, but I was just 19. From the beginning he was very stern but fair, I never ran so many PT miles in my life. He had a bent broken finger and when he pointed at us it was kind of funny. This was only 3 years after the Loop Fire so safety was a priority. He saw things in me I didn’t know I had, and in 1970 I became a crew leader (we split crew into 2-15 man teams). For a newby it gave me the foundation of Wildland firefighting I carried for my 38 year career. I still occasionally think of him and the positive impact he had on my life.

Hal Mortier also has memories of his time on the crew:

Ron Campbell was my first supervisor in the Forest Service and a memorable one at that. He was a no-nonsense leader with very high standards and expectations on the job…yet a lot of fun and a friend off the job. Ron was a shaker and a mover as evidenced by his rapid assent through the ranks. I am certain I modeled some of my leadership style and qualities after Ron, a true pleasure to work with and for!

And from Rick Bondar:

He was a tough, smart, ballsy, son of a bitch, who scared the hell out of me my first year and whom I respected and was almost friends with my last 2-3 years on the crew. We would have followed him anywhere & DID.

Continue reading “TBT: working for Ron Campbell”

50th anniversary of the Loop Fire commemorated

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.

Loop Fire memorial
Gordon King, former crew supervisor for the El Cariso Hotshots, unexpectedly stepped forward to deliver remarks at the 50th anniversary ceremony of the 1966 Loop Fire tragedy. While speaking Gordon was overwhelmed by emotion and Cal Fire Riverside chief John Hawkins, left, and Angeles National Forest fire chief Robert Garcia, right, jumped forward to support and encourage King.
Loop Fire memorial
Sand Fire Burn area and El Cariso Hotshots memorial 50th Anniversary ceremony held at El Cariso Park in Sylmar, CA Tuesday November 1st, 2016. In attendance was CAL FIRE Chief Ken Pimlott, USFS Fire and Aviation Director Shawna Legarza, and current and former El Cariso Hotshots. The memorial ceremony honored the 50th anniversary of the El Cariso Hotshots burn over at the Loop Fire in 1966 in the hills above the memorial park.
Loop Fire memorial
Current El Cariso crew during the Pledge of Allegiance and opening prayer for the 50th anniversary ceremony for the Loop Fire tragedy. A flyover of LA County helicopters also occurred.

Continue reading “50th anniversary of the Loop Fire commemorated”

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:



“… 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.”

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out Rich.