Mississippi men still meet to relive their firefighting days in California

Tupelo hotshots
From the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal

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.

The Laguna Fire, 45 years ago today

Map 1970 Laguna Fire
Map of the 1970 Laguna Fire. USFS.

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).

Laguna fire number of firefighters.
The number of firefighters assigned to the Laguna Fire. This is a hand-made chart on graph paper from the official analysis of the fire in 1970. The numbers do not include overhead and “camp and facilitating” personnel.

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.

El Cariso Hot Shots
El Cariso Hot Shots at Lake Henshaw, California in 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

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.

Wildland firefighters called “tactical athletes”

El Cariso Hot Shots, 1972
“Tactical athletes”, also known as the 1972 version of the El Cariso Hotshots (missing  Superintendent Ron Campbell, and Bill Gabbert who was behind the camera). Click to enlarge.

Charles Palmer, who spent 20 years as a firefighter and smokejumper, describes wildland firefighters as “tactical athletes”.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the Seattle Times.

…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…

One of the first times a fire shelter was used

A former member of the El Cariso Hotshots, a southern California crew based on the Cleveland National Forest, sent us a copy of a newspaper article from August 9, 1964 that described a “new three-pound bodyguard” carried by U.S. Forest Service firefighters. It was one of the early versions of the tent-like aluminum fire shelters which are now standard issue for most wildland firefighters in the United States.

But what was news to me was an entrapment of 36 members of El Cariso on June 22 of that year when they deployed the shelters on a fire near San Bernardino County’s Cajon Pass. The article said they set an escape fire, then deployed the shelters in the freshly blackened area. No one was burned, except for one crewmember who was in a different location and did not use his fire shelter. He suffered serious burns which could have been worse, Lynn Biddison the Forest Fire Control Officer said, if he had not been wearing another new piece of equipment, a cotton shirt treated to be fire resistant.

The Hotshots were told at the time that it was the first time fire shelters had been deployed in a life-saving situation.

El Cariso Hotshots entrapment, 1964

Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe when 12 members of El Cariso were entrapped and killed on the Loop Fire on the Angeles National Forest two years later on November 1, 1966, they were not carrying their fire shelters because a decision had been made that it was not necessary because the fire was relatively quiet.


(UPDATE November 13, 2013)

Concerning the use of fire shelters on the Loop Fire, below is a passage from the report on that fatal fire:

Loop Fire, shelters

Thanks go out to Rogers

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.

At that time there was no standard training curriculum in the USFS for new firefighters. There were some films we could watch, but training standards and lesson plans were left up to the individual units or districts, at least on the Cleveland NF. The wheel was reinvented constantly when training was offered.

Rick Bondar (left) and Tom Sadowski
Rick Bondar (left) and Tom Sadowski working on the Basic 32 training program in 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

At his direction our crew developed a four-day basic training package for new firefighters which became known as the “Basic 32-hour Package”. It consisted of an instructor’s guide, a student workbook, and a slide-tape visual aid — slides synced to narrated audio on a tape. 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. The illustrations of the “13 Situations that Shout Watchout” were drawn by a member of the crew during that time period. This was before 5 more situations were added, making it 18 Situations.

When the training package was finished in 1972 or 1973, it required a Wollensak cassette recorder to put it on which could recognize the slide advance tone, and a 35mm slide projector; the two were linked with a special cable. Eventually the program was converted to VHS tapes and was used with the workbooks in many locations around the country for training new firefighters.

Ron Campbell and Al Kuehl
Assistant Superintendent Al Kuel (left) and Ron Campbell at Lake Henshaw in 1970. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Quite a number of firefighters from the Ron Campbell El Cariso era moved on and up into leadership roles in firefighting and other fields. I have lost track of many of them, but at the risk of leaving some out, the list includes Gary Cones, Hal Mortier, Bob Drown, Charlie Phenix, Rick Bondar, Tom Sadowski, Allen Bond, Chuck Whitlock, Steve Jakala, Mike Herth, and Roger Seewald. They all worked on the crew between 1970 and 1972. Perhaps our readers can add to this list, especially for the years 1973 through 1975 after I moved on to engines and the Laguna Hot Shots.

El Cariso Hot Shots, 1970
El Cariso Hot Shots, 1970. Ron Campbell is in the front row, second from the left, with his arms folded. (click to see a larger version)

Tom Sadowski was on El Cariso from 1969 through 1972. From his home in Maine he sent us his memories of Ron.


“Ron Campbell

A Memorial

By Tom Sadowski

In 1969 I was 18 and Ron Campbell was, well he was older. You couldn’t tell how much older because he was always standing in the sun and you had to squint to make out the features on his face. It was my first time in sunny California and Ron Campbell seemed to be California to the core. He was blond and trim and he must have been experienced or the Forest Service wouldn’t have put him in charge. He never talked about his past but the guys had him pegged as ex Army Ranger or Marine; possibly Navy SEAL. Certainly he had smokejumper experience and very likely was on call for the CIA. His main concern was professionalism. He wanted to run the best crew with no flaws, no exception.

We immediately got off on the wrong foot. I was quite late for my first day of work because I had a letter, signed Ron Campbell, which specifically stated that long hair would not be acceptable. I took the time to shave my beard, find a barber shop and get most of my hair cut off before winding my way up the mountain.

As it was the dawning of the age of the hippy, the letter was very strongly worded. The warning about hair length overshadowed any mention about what time it was I was suppose to report for work. Anyway, I sort of felt like it was the same as reporting to summer camp: it didn’t really matter what time you got there on the first day. “Oh no,” said Ron Campbell and within 10 minutes of my arrival at El Cariso he had me out on the line swinging a hook at chamise and manzanita.

I came back to camp later that afternoon smelling like black sage and bleeding from the blisters on my hands and scratches on my face. Ron Campbell called me into his office which was a tiny cabin no bigger then four by eight feet with only enough room for his desk and a coffee pot, and Al Khuel’s desk who was the assistant superintendent, and for a few file cabinets and some office chairs. Ron Campbell stood me up against one of the bookcases and looked me up and down. “I thought we wrote you a letter stating that long hair would not be acceptable”.

What did this man want? This was the time of non-conformity and rebellion. Even though I drove 2500 miles to take this job in a National Forest that didn’t seem to have any trees, I’d be damned if this guy was going to tell me how I have to look in a job where I’m shaking hands with flammable shrubs all day long.

But Ron Campbell had other plans. He wasn’t about to let me quit. He already had me figured out. He would push me until I was about to quit and then he’d give me some slack until I came around, partially, to his way of thinking. Through Dan Bender, my first foreman, he got me and everyone else singing the same song. He was a crew builder and he built the best crews with no flaws, no exception.

It may seem odd but we used to play tetherball behind the mess hall where we had set up an obstacle course for physical training. Tetherball is fondly remembered by most people as a third grade schoolyard game where two players stand opposite each other with a steel pole in between them. Connected to this pole on a hefty cord is the tetherball. The object is to wrap the cord around the pole by hitting the ball with your hands which would be easy except that your opponent tries to wrap the cord around the pole in the opposite direction. The third grade version of the game is generally harmless but players in the school yard don’t usually have a combined weight exceeding 350 pounds and something to prove.

Ron Campbell and Bill Gabbert
Ron Campbell (left) and Bill Gabbert, tether ball, 1972. Photo by Tom Sadowski.

That summer a lot of the guys were nursing long scabs on their forearms not so much from tangling with the chaparral but as a result of rope burns from the tetherball. Hot Shot Tetherball games got so intense we had to impose the one rule that we also used when playing commando volleyball: No Knives.

Ron Campbell, as the cool headed superintendent who had an air about him indicating he was always in charge, had no time for these games.  (Editor’s note: there were exceptions as seen in the photo) Occasionally he would leave his office and just check in on us to make sure we weren’t killing each other or doing something so dangerous that he might have to console our parents. Ron was not big on consoling anyone as there should never be a need if everyone follows the rules. He never said it directly but it was very clear to us that if he ever did have to console our parents because something stupid we did caused our demise, he would make it a point to come to the hospital or wake us from the dead if need be and personally throttle us.

So on a particularly hot afternoon after defeating any challengers at the tetherball pole, I looked up to see Ron Campbell watching. We may have goaded him a bit because he never played but he came over to the pole and with the sun to his back he looked at me and said something like “Let’s see what you’ve got”.

Game on. We volleyed a bit to test each other and then got serious. Ron Campbell got in a few good hits and then I countered. I remember the ball came to me and I just happened to be in perfect position to hit it right in the sweet spot with all my might. The yellow sphere rocketed toward Ron Campbell who was no more than six feet away and hit him squarely in the face with a terrible crushing sound. It may have broken his nose but to my astonishment, Ron Campbell didn’t flinch. The ball ricocheted past my head as I stood there dumbfounded. That was it. As soon as it got back to him, he deftly accelerated it by me and above my reach until seconds later, he won the game.

I stayed with the crew for four seasons largely because of Ron Campbell. He was one of those influential figures who I think of often. Our beliefs may not have been on the same plane but we were united in purpose when it came to getting the job done. I moved on to fill a position as the assistant fire management officer at the Glennallen District in Alaska for the Department of Interior. I dealt with many fire crews and a lot of trying situations but thanks to Ron Campbell, to this day, I never flinch whenever I get hit in the face. OK, I will never be as stony as he was but I give it a go. Thank you, Ron Campbell.”

El Cariso Hotshots disbanded

The El Cariso Interagency Hotshots have been disbanded. El Cariso was one of the first two hotshot crews created about 60 years ago after World War II. For many decades they have been working out of the Trabuco District on the Cleveland National Forest in southern California.

El Cariso's logo
El Cariso’s logo, a Ruptured Duck

The El Cariso Interagency Hotshots have been disbanded.

It pains me as an alumni to write that. My first job as a firefighter was on the crew. El Cariso was one of the first two hotshot crews created about 60 years ago after World War II. For many decades they have been working out of the Trabuco District on the Cleveland National Forest in southern California.

The crew ended the 2012 fire season as a fully certified Type 1 Hotshot crew. But they began the 2013 season as a Type 2 crew due to vacancies at critical positions. Throughout the year their organization deteriorated, suffering more vacancies, as well as a lack of consistent supervision and crew leadership according to a high-ranking U.S. Forest Service official we talked with.

The crew lost both of their captains, their superintendent was detailed to the Forest Supervisor’s office, and as the latter part of the fire season approached they were not even qualified as a Type 2 Initial Attack crew. Due to these issues and concerns for firefighter safety, the National Forest shut down the crew when they returned from working on the Rim Fire at Yosemite National Park. The remaining permanent personnel were transferred to engine stations, but the temporary crew members were laid off.

The Forest expects this situation to be temporary, and next year will begin rebuilding the organization. With the long list of interagency requirements for hotshot crews, it will not be an easy task. We wish them luck in reconstituting the El Cariso Hotshots.

The crew has endured other disastrous situations in the past. In 1966 12 people on the crew died as a result of burn injuries on the Loop Fire on the Angeles National Forest in southern California. And in 1959 three members of the crew and four others were entrapped and killed on the Decker Fire just a few miles from their base west of Elsinore, California..

1970 El Cariso Hot Shots
1970 El Cariso Hot Shots. Superintendent Ron Campbell is in the center of the front row (without a hard hat); Assistant Superintendent Al Kuehl is on the left end of the front row; Bill Gabbert is fourth from the right in the front row.