El Cariso Hot Shots 1966

Home | Summary of Fires - 1966 | Life at the El Cariso Hot Shot Camp | Loop Fire, A Personal Account | Photo Gallery 1966 | Photo Gallery 2 | 10 Standard Orders | Decker Fire 1959 | Doug Campbell | Links related to El Cariso and Fire Fighting | Events - 2010 | Events - October 31 - November 1, 2016 | New Monument Dedication - November 3, 2012 | Where Are They? | In Memory | Guestbook | About Me | Contact Me

Summary of Fires - 1966

Tom Graham and I attended the following 7 fires during the summer of 1966:

      1.   Wellman Fire - 92,000 acres - Los Padres National Forest, California

2.   LadyBug Fire - 95 acres - Angeles National Forest, California

3.   School House Fire – 3245 acres - Los Padres National Forest, California

4.   Indian Fire – 950 acres - Cleveland National Forest, California

5.   Owl Creek Fire – 105 acres - Salmon National Forest, Idaho

6.   Round Mountain Fire - 20,000 acres - Mendocino National Forest, California

      7.   Jackson Fire – 40 acres – Angeles National Forest, California

Fires - El Cariso Hot Shots - Summer 1966

1. Wellman Fire – 92,000 Acres -
We were called to the Wellman Fire on June 12 and we were on that fire for about 11 days. That was my first fire. We were told the fire started from a small plane crash. I think we returned to the El Cariso Hot Shot camp on June 22. That was a long eleven days! We were not able to take a bath or shower during that time. We did get to eat in fire camp several times. The food in fire camp was good and plenty of it. We were allowed a ration of a pack of cigarettes or two cigars if we wanted. I am not sure how often we could do this but we were not in fire camp that often. I occasionally got the cigars to smoke and sometimes a pack of cigarettes, not to smoke, but to trade smokers for food, or water, out on the fire line.

We usually were in very remote areas. We sometimes slept in regular sleeping bags on the ground, but only when we were at a fire camp. These better sleeping bags were kept on our crew trucks.  We slept in paper sleeping bags on the ground when we were out on the fire line. We were usually a long distance from fire camp. Most of our fire line construction was at night when the fire slowed down. It was also much cooler at night, allowing for more fire line construction due to less fatigue from the heat. It was miserable trying to sleep during the day as it was hot, noisy and flies were really bad at times. We had to be ready to move at a moment’s notice and that made it hard to sleep. We were in a V-shaped ravine one night, and were moving to another location and stopped to wait for instructions on where to go. I leaned against the rocky ravine wall and went to sleep standing up! 

There were times we could do very little if anything, to suppress the fire, especially during the day, and just had to wait until conditions changed before we could start building fire line or trying to hold established fire lines. The large fires get so intense at times, they create their own weather.  I saw fire whirl winds like a dust devil or miniature tornado travel quite a distance. Of course this would spread burning embers and fire brands everywhere touching off numerous spot fires.

We arrived on the Wellman fire around noon the first day.  It was extremely hot! Crew 1 was spread out along a gravel road in an attempt to keep burning debris from rolling across the road. Burning Yucca plants (like burning pineapples) would come rolling down the mountain, as would rocks of all sizes. Some of both would be air-borne! If they crossed the road to the “green” side, we had to chase them down and either cover them with dirt or throw them back into the road and move them back to the burned side. The radiation heat from the dirt bank we faced along that road was absolutely miserably hot! I questioned my sanity for taking such a job. My thought was, “What the hell have I done? What was I thinking?” The long sleeve orange fire shirts, metal hard hats, the one gallon water canteen, headlamps, extra batteries, backpacks and whatever else we had to carry, made it feel even hotter. The weight of the gear and fire tool would drain one’s energy and added to the misery of the job. There was no “Gatorade” back then.

Later, when we were being moved from the “hold-the-road” position to a new location, the fire was rapidly moving on a large front in our direction. We could see several spot fires in the distance. A small crew was working with a dozer on one spot fire and another crew was using a tanker truck hard line to water down the other spot fire, but the main fire was moving toward us very fast. I am not sure if they abandoned the dozer or moved it to the safety zone in time. A large area had been previously dozed clear of brush for a safety zone and some vehicles had been parked there. The fire was approaching fast and there was not time to reel in the rubber hose line.  They had to cut it loose from the hose reel and back the truck up the narrow dirt road as fast as possible!

As the fire got closer, the noise was tremendous……like the roar of a huge waterfall!

We had to make a run for it, up the road and into the burn, about 500 feet away.

Looking back, as we were running from the fire, I saw the top of a pine tree next to the road literally explode into flames like a giant match had been lighted! There was a ‘chute’ or steep ravine at one point, that crossed the road and large rocks and Yuccas were funneled into that ravine and were rolling down the mountain, and some were airborne and flying across the dirt road.  We had to line up, while someone serving as a “spotter”, watched for rolling debris. One at a time, we made the run across that point. The fire came around the end of the mountain and rapidly moved across a large fairly flat area and up the mountainside opposite where we had taken refuge. We watched from the safety of the previously burned over area, high on the mountain, as the fire roared up the mountain on the opposite side in just a few seconds. It was amazing to see how fast the fire could move and how much brush was burned clean, just leaving deep ashes to walk through and a few scattered remains of brush “skeletons”. A good description of some of the burned over areas is “Moonscape”! We saw too small deer running up the mountain, away from the fire. We never knew if they made it to safety.

As previously mentioned, we worked mostly at night when temperatures were cooler and when the fire movement usually had slowed.  When possible, we built fire line next to the fire as we went. (Direct Attack).  It was “one foot in the burn, one in the green”. When cutting brush and removing material to build the fire line, Foreman John Moore was constantly yelling “green in the green, burn in the burn!

Every once in awhile a Manzanita bush would rapidly go up in flames with a loud crackle and roar and scare the hell out of everyone. It would light up the whole area! It was like a can of gasoline had been thrown on the burning plant! I could not believe how dense and tall some of the brush was at times. It was too thick to even crawl through in most places and was about 10 to 14 feet tall. I think they referred to it as Chaparral Brush, Type 14.  (14 feet tall)

We constructed many chains (66 feet/chain) of fire line cutting through green brush on both sides of the line (Indirect Attack) or working next to the fire edge (Direct Attack). There was no escaping from a fast moving fire in that dense brush. You had to have a fire line progressively cut, cleared, and a safety zone established in case the fire blew up. Your fire line was your safety line and the steepness of the terrain and distance to the safety zone was critical.

2. Lady Bug Fire95 Acres - This fire, our second fire, was on the Angeles National Forest, from July 16 through July 19. I don’t remember much about the Lady Bug Fire. I do recall seeing a large plane drop fire retardant as we rode in our crew truck to the fire. The terrain was very steep, rocky and rugged on the Angeles National Forest.

3. School House Fire – 3245 acres
– I cannot remember anything about this fire on the Los Padres National Forest. I just recall we were in the habitat of the California Condor, an endangered species of Vulture with a wide wingspan. I never saw one.             

4. Indian Fire – 950 acres
This fire was near the El Cariso Hot Shot camp on the Cleveland National Forest.  I believe we were on this fire from July 24 through July 26.  The fire was caused by a small plane crash, killing the flight instructor and a California Highway Patrol student pilot. It appeared they were flying up a canyon and down drafts caused them to fly into the ground. The fire was so hot around the airplane that there was melted aluminum on the ground! We cut fire line within 20 feet of the bodies of the two men killed in the crash. They were burned beyond recognition and one body was on top the other. You could see flesh burned off the fingers and tops of their sculls and intestines protruding from one burned charred body! This was a sad and terrible sight to see. The brush had burned out very clean from the site of the plane crash to the top of the ridge and it spread over the top to the other side and burned downhill.

5. Owl Creek Fire – 105 acres -
This fire was on the Salmon National Forest in Idaho. We were traveling to and were on the fire from August 5 through August 12. It was almost like going on a vacation away from the brush fires in Southern California. We were flown to Salmon, Idaho in a DC-3 US Forest Service plane. I think it was a DC-3 used by US Forest Service smoke jumpers. I recall we landed on a very small landing strip and they held back traffic along a road at the edge of the air field so we could land.

We were taken by school bus to as close as possible to the fire by road. We then had a long walk into the Owl Creek Fire and a long walk back out later. The fire started from a lightning strike. Smoke Jumpers had parachuted in on it, but they were not able to hold their fire lines.  They abandoned the fire and walked out, so we were told.  We found their fire tools near a partially constructed fire line.  Maybe they heard we were coming and just left the fire but I can’t imagine leaving fire tools behind.

Fire line construction in that country was easy compared to working in the brush country of Southern California. The Idaho terrain was steep and rocky in places. However, it was beautiful country. On one occasion, a large log came rolling down the mountain and we saw a bear on the run not far from where we were working. The bear may have dislodged the log.

On that particular fire, there were large, tall scattered pine trees with grass underneath. It was mountainous and very steep. But, the hazard there was burning pine cones which would roll down against a tree on the uphill side. If you were below the tree, you may not see that it was burning on the opposite side, the up hill side! Later, it would burn through the trunk near the base at stump level, and the tree would fall! It would fall without warning! This was a serious hazard one had to watch for constantly, day and night. We would hear trees falling all during the night.

After we completed a fire line around the fire, we patrolled and did some mop up until early in the morning, then we settled in for the night. Rod Seewald and I teamed up. We were spread out along the fire line in teams of two. It was really cold that night and the sky was clear. We built a warming fire in the burn. I recall digging out a shallow depression and putting some pine needles in it for some cushioning to lay my paper sleeping bag in. Even though it was close to 100 degrees during the day, it was near freezing at night and felt especially cold in the early morning hours before sunrise. It was really cold getting out of that sleeping bag!

One day, a pack train of mules and two men on horses (maybe mules also) brought us some hot food in stainless steel containers, loaded in pack saddles on the mules. It was really good food and so neat to see it brought in by pack mules, and what looked like two cowboys on horses (or mules), just like from a western movie, including pistols in their holsters and gun belts!   

 I washed out some clothes in Salmon River. We did get to take a bath in the Salmon River and was it ever cold! It was like ice water!

When we left that fire by plane, we may have been overloaded as there was a moment during takeoff, I was not sure we were going to clear the barbed wire fence at the end of the landing strip. Jim Brown recalled this incident also. Hazards abound!

6. Round Mountain Fire – 20,000 acres
This fire was on the Mendocino National Forest in Northern California. It was in heavy timber instead of brush. It was very different from the brush country of Southern California. About all I recall on that fire was that it was very dusty and hot and the timber was fairly large and dense. Also when in fire camp one day, the sun was blackened out from the heavy smoke and ashes were raining down like snow! The ground and everything was covered in the gray ash! And it looked like a dirty gray snow!  It was difficult to eat at the fire camp tables as ash kept raining down on the food. Also some kind of wasps kept flying around and landing on our food, making eating tricky. I believe it was on this fire we got to go to a motel and clean up and rest overnight, as we were fairly close to a town. I am not sure when we were on this fire, but it was sometime in the latter part of August 1966.

7. Jackson Fire – 40 acres
– This fire was on the Angeles National Forest. It was rocky and very steep terrain. I am not sure if this was the fire but it was one of the fires on the Angeles that we climbed a cliff one night. It may have been on the Lady Bug fire on the Angeles. When we got on top the mountain, a large hawk, flew up in the face of Tom Graham, but he dodged it in the nick of time. The next day I remember seeing the cliff we climbed from a distance and was shocked we had climbed it! I don’t know how high the cliff was that we climbed that night, but it was possibly 40 or 50 feet high!  I believe we were on this fire only two days from August 25 to August 26.

I don’t recall which fire, but we were on top of a ridge one time, and large bombers were making fire retardant drops. It was calcium borate slurry, a red liquid chemical mix. We watched the small “birddog” plane lead the bombers into a deep canyon of thick smoke to direct the drop and both planes would disappear out of site for a few seconds until they came up out of the smoke. The planes sometimes made the sounds of a dive bomber like in a World War II movie.  You would sort of nervously “hold your breath” until the planes came back out of the smoke. 

One time a bomber flew directly over us and we could actually see the pilot smiling from the cockpit in the front of the plane! It was an old World War II bomber with the glass windows in front. When we were near these fire retardant drops, we were instructed to lay down flat on the ground on top of our fire tool (to protect it from the sticky slurry) and hold on to the base of a bush or something.  Although the slurry would usually turn into a fine mist or droplets like a misty rain, we were told it could come down in mass and cause serious injury or death if one was struck by the several ton load. 

The red slurry droplets would cover everything exposed: hardhat, headlamps, canteens, etc.  It dried to a light pink color and had a sort of rough “bumpy” feel to the touch.  We proudly “wore” the droplets as a “badge” of our exposure to the hot line and nearness to the fire. AKA: El Cariso was the best!

We were riding in the back of our crew truck one time, either hurrying to a fire or moving to another location.  We were traveling on a very narrow dirt road. One side of the road was a shear drop into the canyon below. I recall the outside dual wheel of the truck appearing to be hanging over the edge of the road. Rocks and dirt were breaking loose from the edge of the road and sliding down the mountain. We thought we might slide off the steep embankment at any time.  Several of us climbed up on our seats holding to the top of the truck cargo boxes and preparing to jump from it, should it appear the truck was about to slip off the road.  That definitely was a nerve-wrecking ordeal! 

Fires in the 1966 Fire Season

Based on information displayed on a shield at the current El Cariso Hot Shot camp headquarters, the El Cariso Hot Shots were on 17 fires during the 1966 fire season.
Other than the 7 fires I attended in June, July, and August of 1966, I have no information on the date and size of these fires.

The “Fire Record 1966” lists the following fires:

Neighbors - Cleveland N.F.

Wellman - Los Padres N.F.

Indian - Cleveland N.F.

Owl Creek - Salmon N.F. (Idaho)

Thomas Creek - Challis N.F. (Idaho)
Pebble Creek - Challis N.F. (Idaho)

Round - Mendocino N.F. (Round Mountain)

Lady Bug - Angeles N.F.

School House - Los Padres N.F.

Jackson - Angeles N.F.

Iron Mountain - Sierra N.F.

Rock House - San Bernardino N.F.

Bear - Angeles N.F.

Summit - Inyo N.F.

Mace - Sequoia N.F.

Main Street Cyn - Cleveland N.F.

Loop - Angeles N.F.


El Cariso Hot Shots 1966 Fire Season