Wildfire history of California, interactive

California fire history map
California fire history map by Capital Public Radio. All fires in Southern California 1878-2018. Click to enlarge.

We often hear, “It’s not IF an area will burn, but WHEN”.

Capital Public Radio has developed an interactive map showing the footprints of wildfires that have occurred in California since 1878. You can see all of the fires at once, or individual years, and the map is zoomable. (The map may not display well in all browsers. It seems to work best using Firefox.)

I may or may not have spent too much time looking at these maps.

California fire history map San Diego County
California fire history map by Capital Public Radio. San Diego County, 2003. The largest fire is the Cedar Fire. Click to enlarge.

A description of Hotshot crews in the 1940s

In looking through the 2018 edition of Hotshot Crew History in America, I was interested in a piece in the Historical Articles section. It was written by the Stanley Stevenson, the Fire Control Officer on the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California, possibly around 1950. It appears that Mr. Stevenson had an appreciation for the abilities of hotshot crews. I believe he was later promoted to Forest Supervisor.


“HOT SHOT” Crews

Stanley Stevenson

Fire Control Officer, Cleveland National Forest

Scouting revealed that the head of the Burma Fire of 1949, Cleveland National Forest, was spreading rapidly uphill through medium to heavy brush and would reach the rim of an adjacent watershed unless checked on a small ridge ¼ from the top. One “hot shot” crew under Foreman George McLarty, San Bernardino National Forest, had been working the northern flank from the bottom and would reach the top too late to effect the check. The Cleveland “hot shot” crew Foreman Leon Ballou, and 4 men were flown via helicopter from the southern flank of the fire to the ridge at the head of the fire. The 5 men hurriedly cut a line in front of the fire, back-fired it out and started a direct attack on the fire edge down the south flank to meet the rest of the crew. The crew on the northern flank meanwhile had pushed through and tied to the northern end of the fired out line. Although numerous spots occurred and the crews lost the south flank twice because of whirlwinds, they closed the gap and effected control on a 280-acre fire that would probably have more than tripled its size within 4 hours unless the check had been made and the lines tied together.

Since these crews are trained to subsist on the line with bare essentials, a sustained push taking advantage of lulls in fire intensity is possible. This was demonstrated by the San Bernardino “hot shot” crew on the Agua Tibia Fire of 1950.

Lightning started this fire in very steep to precipitous terrain covered with medium to extremely heavy brush and scrub oak. The west flank of the fire had slopped over the planned control ridge approximately ½ mile from the top of the main divide. Helicopter scouting at 10:30 a.m. revealed that if the slop-over could be controlled the lines being constructed from the top and bottom along the flank would probably control that side of the fire.

Foreman McLarty was flown by helicopter around the slop-over and he then jumped about 6 feet to the ground inside the burn above the slop-over. He subsequently cleared a landing spot and 4 additional men were flown in to begin work on the line. Meanwhile, the rest of the crew were started down the ridge top along an old trail. Helicopter coverage guided the crew to their destination where they split forces and started around the slop-over. Although this action was completed within 1 ½ hours after the initial scouting, the slop-over had spread to a perimeter of approximately 65 chains on a very steep rocky slope in medium to heavy brush oak type.

McLarty and his whole crew worked until dark. They were sent food, lights, and blankets by helicopter. The crew was fed and rested in relays until a “scratch” line was constructed around the slop-over about 11:00 p.m. Early the following morning, the crew was again serviced by helicopter and the fire line finished and mop-up started.

Stubborn aggressiveness on the part of this crew prevented the fire from crossing the drainage and establishing a new head on even more precipitous terrain.

These two examples illustrate the flexibility of “hot shot” crew action. Similar action has been taken many times during the past 4 years. Control possibilities such as these would have been impractical without well organized, trained, and conditioned crews.

One of the “hot shot” crews has been based during the fire season on the Cleveland National Forest. The following notes, although concerned primarily with the Cleveland “hot shot” organization and operational procedures, are representative for “hot shot” crews in the California Region.

The crew is composed of young men whose primary requisites are physical fitness and a will to work. Their lack of experience and conditioning are compensated by intensive training in fire line construction and use of hand tools and fire hose lays at the beginning of each season. These men are termed “fire fighters” and receive fire-fighter rates of pay while on a fire. When not engaged on fire suppression they are paid laborer wages and used on forest projects.

A sub-foreman or straw boss works with and has charge of from 5 to 8 fire fighters. The straw boss is an integral part of each crew and takes his days off at the same time as the crew. Two assistant foremen acts as crew bosses and are each assigned one-half the straw boss squads. One of the crew bosses is capable of assuming temporary charge of the whole crew during the absence of the foreman.

The crew is under the direct supervision of an experienced fire fighter who can act, as one foreman put it, “from general to father confessor.” This foreman must be a skilled leader, fire-wise, and physically fit for very arduous work. He usually assumes the duties of sector boss on fires.

Crew members are hired only after full understanding and acceptance of the rigid rules set up. Camp routine is fashioned after that of athletic training camps with scheduled hours for meals, work, recreation and sleep. Although some men quickly drop out of the crew because of the difficulty of the job and the rigid discipline, three have returned each year since 1947 and ten others including the foreman have been on the crew for the past 2 seasons.

Conservation, wildlife, general forestry, and training films give the reasons for the “why” and “how” of forest fire protection. The crew is given instruction in the use and care of fire line hand tools, followed by intensive work-outs on practice fire lines. Several afternoons during the first part of the season are spent on illustrative lectures, orientation, fire behavior, safety, and correct fire line construction practices. Action on early season fires is discussed on the ground with a large part of the constructive comment coming from the crew members.

After several successful attacks on early season fires, crews begin to develop an esprit de corps and an eagerness to prove their ability. Several distinctive arm patches have been designed and worn by crews hailing their identity. The competitive spirit on large fires requiring more than one crew has provided additional incentive toward better production.

The following summary of work accomplishment, although reflecting considerable more suppression time during the heavier fire season of 1950, indicates the advisability of preplanning and budgeting forces primarily for fire suppression.

hotshot crew history Stanley Stevenson

The value of a trained unit of men that can be sent into difficult sections of a fire perimeter with a high degree of certainty that control will be effected, has been demonstrated many times during the past. The ever increasing demand for “hot shots” when the going gets rough is the fire manager’s endorsement of the “hot shot” program.

2018 version of Hotshot Crew history is available

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has released the 2018 edition of Hotshot Crew History in America. You can download the 296-page, 11 MB document here.

Special thanks go out to Dave Provencio who collected many of the updates and to Brit Rosso of the WFLLS and especially Juli Smith of the National Advanced Fire & Resource Institute for putting it together.

The document has a wealth of information, but the history is not totally complete for every crew. If you have any additions, contact Mr. Provencio: mso_1977 at me dot com

Hotshot Crew History 2018 wildfires

I put together this table of contents, to make it a little easier to find a crew. They are organized by Geographic Area.

Page Geographic Area

  • 3 Alaska
  • 6 Great Basin
  • 30 North Ops
  • 62 Northern Rockies
  • 77 Northwest
  • 101 Rocky Mountain
  • 110 Southern
  • 118 South Ops
  • 174 Southwest
  • 209 Historical Articles

The Eastern Area is not listed but Illinois-based Midewin can be found on page 22.

The Smokey Generation’s road trip

What is The Smokey Generation? (They offer a description:)

The Smokey Generation is an oral history and digital storytelling project dedicated to collecting, preserving, and sharing the stories and history of wildland fire.  We are passionate about the wildland fire community and culture, celebrating it everyday. We are excited about communicating the beneficial role of fire in the environment and encouraging conversations about how to better use fire as a land management tool. We are committed to giving a voice to wildland fire and fire practitioners in a way that honors our history and proudly demonstrates our relationship to fire and the natural world.  Check us out at: TheSmokeyGeneration.com

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We first wrote about the Smokey Generation in 2015.

The Smokey Generation: Wildland Fire Oral History Project

Bethany Hannah
Bethany Hannah

Wildland firefighting is a unique occupation, very different from structural firefighting and any other job, actually. It is a niche line of work, an amalgam of professional athlete and warfighter. Few people outside of the relatively small pool of those who have experienced it have a good understanding of how wildland firefighters live and work — the frequent or constant travel, the extreme physical demands over an extended time, the camaraderie of the crews, the feeling of accomplishment, and the occasional adrenaline rush.

These folks have stories to tell. Some of them are fun and entertaining, and many are embedded with lessons that can help educate those just beginning their careers. It would be a shame to allow their hard earned knowledge to fade away.

Betheny Hannah has embarked on a project to preserve some of those memories and lessons, creating The Smokey Generation, a collection of video interviews with firefighters. Having worked as a hotshot firefighter for six years and a chain saw instructor, she knows the jargon and what questions to ask. On her website, which was designed as part of her Master’s thesis project, and on Vimeo, she has posted interviews with dozens of firefighters. Most of the individual interviews have been broken down into several short recordings, each on a singular topic, lasting just a few minutes so it can be a little overwhelming when browsing through over 250 of them on Vimeo. On her website they can be sorted by person and topic.

This summer Ms. Hannah initiated a Kickstarter project to raise funds to attend and interview some of the 900 attendees at the smokejumper reunion in Missoula.

Several videos are posted below. The first was produced by STIHL, the chain saw folks, in which she is featured as part of the company’s Real People campaign. The rest are from The Smokey Generation. Beginning with the second, the descriptions are below the video.

(Vimeo, which is an excellent service, usually, seems to be having problems the day we posted this article, and you may have trouble starting some of the videos.)

Ariel Starr, Redding Smokejumper in 2012 and Missoula Smokejumper from 2013-Present (2015), tells an amusing story about her first jump in her home state of Alaska.

Charlie Caldwell, retired Hotshot Superintendent and Smokejumper, talks about how he got his start in his career, along with some information about the beginnings of the Redding Interagency Hotshot Crew program.

Ronald Stephens, Missoula Smokejumper from 1946-1947, describes his involvement with the 1947 water bomb project, a semi-secret USFS experiment in partnership with the Army Air Corps.

Ken Jordan, retired Hotshot Superintendent, describes his perception of the characteristics that make an ideal Hotshot and talks about the draw of working with good people early on in his career. Interviewed: 4/2014

(Each thumbnail at the bottom tells a new story)

Gina Papke, current Program Specialist and former Hotshot Superintendent, shares some of her memories and thoughts on her experience leading up to and after the South Canyon Incident.

Davidson River crew — 1923 and 2015

Davidson River Fire Crew 2015
Davidson River Fire Crew 2015.

We received the following message from Bill Coates, Acting Superintendent of the Davidson River Initial Attack Crew (above), who referred to a photo that we posted on November 18 taken in 1923. We reposted that photo down below. Click on it to see a larger version.

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“The first photo featured on your post of old firefighting photos is one that we also encountered in some archives a while ago, identified as the Davidson River Fire Crew. In 2008 the US Forest Service and Schenck Job Corps in Pisgah Forest, North Carolina teamed up to create the Davidson River Initial Attack Crew, an advanced fire management training program for Job Corps graduates. Today that crew trains and places approximately 15 students per year, and provides training opportunities to 8-12 agency overhead detailers. We help Region 8 forests accomplish their prescribed fire targets and typically burn between 30,000 and 60,000 acres annually, in addition to wildfire response. I’ve attached a photo [above] of today’s crew from a day we recently spent volunteering at Veteran’s Healing Farm (veteranshealingfarm.org). John Mahshie, who runs the farm, is on the far right.

Bill Coates, Acting Superintendent, Davidson River IA*

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firefighters rail car