Interview with Myron Lee

Myron Lee was a very well-respected Type 1 Incident Commander and Fire Management Officer of the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California. We were saddened to learn he has passed away.

Myron Lee Interview
Above: The header for the .pdf version of the 2007 interview with Myron Lee.

When Myron Lee retired in 1982 the U. S. Forest Service lost the services of a very skilled and experienced firefighter. He was the Fire Management Officer for the Cleveland National Forest in Southern California from 1968 until 1982, including the periods when the fire organizations were transitioning into FIRESCOPE and the Incident Command System.

While checking out the “El Cariso Interagency Hotshot” Facebook page last week I was saddened to see in a post by Bill Molumby that Myron had passed away. It didn’t say when or how, but I’m guessing he must have been about 90 years old. His 36-year career started in 1946 as a firefighter on the engine crew on Palomar Mountain on the Cleveland.

He was Incident Commander, or at that time “Fire Boss”, on some of the largest blazes in California, including the 175,425-acre Laguna Fire on the Cleveland NF in 1970 and the 177,866-acre Marble Cone Fire on the Los Padres NF in 1977.

I worked on the Cleveland for 13 years while Myron was FMO on the Forest and did not know him well but as a Hotshot Captain and Engine Captain I encountered him a number of times. He was friendly, down to earth, intelligent, and had an air of self confidence and a command presence when it was appropriate.

I am reminded of a conversation he and I had. In describing someone, he said, “If a person tells the same lie often enough, even HE begins to believe it”.

Some of the areas of emphasis that were important to him included building relationships with other agencies, assisting fire departments just across the border in northern Mexico, and making sure that firefighters on the Cleveland understood what their role and responsibilities were and importantly, what they were not. He made it clear that medical aids and structure fires were to be handled by other agencies.

In the Facebook post, Jim Huston and Anders Borge Andersen identified a 2007 interview with Myron conducted by Larry Schmidt, apparently as part of a USFS Region 5 (California) History Project. We have the entire interview below. It’s very long, 30 pages, but if you’re a USFS history buff, or worked in Southern California in the 1970s or 1980s, you will enjoy it.

There was one thing that surprised me. In the early 1970s Camp Pendleton intended to test the ability of a laser to shoot down missiles. The Marines asked Myron if resources from the Cleveland could be used to help detect and suppress the expected fires. The interview does not say if the test occurred. I did not know the military has been trying to use lasers since the early 1970s to shoot down aircraft. I think only in recent years have they found much success. The story is on page 16.

The transcript of the interview follows. Keep in mind that it was created from a recording by a person that may not have been familiar with the names and jargon.

LARRY SCHMIDT: This is Larry Schmidt. Today is January 19th. I’m in Twin Falls, Idaho, and I’m interviewing Myron Lee in regard to his experience with the FIRESCOPE program and also his Forest Service history. Myron, can you tell me a little bit about your Forest Service career?

MYRON LEE: Yes, I can. I was a young hoodlum, referred to in the newspaper in San Diego as “a long-haired guttersnipe.” I wasn’t just a young hoodlum later in life, I was a young hoodlum in the third and fourth grades. I believe the teacher wrote on both my report cards from the third grade and the fourth grade that I was “inclined to mischief.” Now, I thought that’s a terrible to write home to tell my parents, but I suspect they may have known it anyway. But I didn’t like school, and I wouldn’t stay home. I was running away from home all the time. And so my stepmother finally made an appointment, and her and I went downtown San Diego to the county courthouse and met with a probation officer first and then a judge, Judge [Turntine?], and Judge Turntine told me I was going to go home and go to school. I told Judge Turntine I was not

Myron Lee, 01/19/07, page 2

going to go home. If I went home, I’d just leave again. I said I wouldn’t mind going to school, but I’m not going home.

Well, we had a fairly serious discussion over it, and he finally found out that I was not going to go home, so he said, “How would you like to go to Mt. Woodson?” I said, “What’s Mt. Woodson?” And he said, “It’s a forestry camp.” And I said, “What do they do?” He said, “Oh, they plant trees and build trails and fight fire, things like that.” I said, “Fine,” so off I went to Mt. Woodson.

After I arrived at Mt. Woodson, I learned Mt. Woodson was the only juvenile detention facility in San Diego Country at that time, and I learned that all of the kids there except me were sentenced there, and most were sentenced for six months. I stayed there for eleven and a half months because it was actually the best life I’d ever had. I loved it. The gentleman I worked for most of the time was an assistant ranger for the California Division of Forestry. That’s what it was known as in those days. “Slim” Carlson, and Slim explained to me one day that he was not going to raise me the rest of my life and that he was going to get me a job and I was going to take it and I was going to do what I was told. So I said, “Okay.”

So I went to work for the California Division of Forestry. I worked as a firefighter at Dulzura, [Lyons?] Valley and La Mesa, and enjoyed the work. I didn’t enjoy the time we were not out working, because I thought there were a lot of things to do out there, but we were dealing with more urban type development areas, and we spent an awful lot of time polishing the fire truck, and I didn’t enjoy that. Continue reading “Interview with Myron Lee”