Los Angeles Brush Fire Kills 11 in U.S Forestry Crew
—U.S. Forest Service photo.
Eleven fire fighters died and 11 others were seriously burned last November 1 in the worst loss of life in a Los Angeles County brush fire in over a quarter of a century.
The men, all highly trained members of the United States Forest Service’s El Cariso Hotshot Crew from the Cleveland National Forest, died at approximately 3:45 p.m. while working a flank of the “Loop” fire in Lower Pacoima Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains adjacent to the northern San Fernando Valley, A sudden gust of wind blew up, sending flames over the crew, which was working on a steep slope of the canyon.
A grisly sequel to the Pacoima Canyon disaster occurred the next day when five marines were killed on a ridge while battling a brush fire at the Camp Pendleton Marine base in northern San Diego County.
The deaths took place at the end of a relatively quiet Southern California fire season—sometimes called the “land of the 13th month brush fire year.” It was an extremely hot (100 degrees at Civic Center) November. Dry Santa Ana winds from the Mojave Desert were blowing 30-40 mph with 12 percent humidity.
Bright flash spotted
All Forest Service and County Fire Department lookout towers were manned, a fire hazard alert was in effect, when at 5:19 a.m. Peggy Hotchkiss, a U. S. Forest Service lookout, in Mendenhall Peak Lookout, saw a bright flash in the sky and the start of a fire near the Army Los Pinetos Nike Base.
The U. S. Forest Service fire crew from nearby Bear Divide Station began the attack but was unable to hold the fire in the face of extremely strong winds. The fire raced southwest into Loop Canyon and the San Fernando Valley foothills near Sylmar.
Investigation revealed that a power line failure at the Nike base caused the fire.
At 5:20 a.m., the Los Angeles City Fire Department’s Coldwater Signal Office received a telephone alarm of a foothill fire and dispatched three engines and a truck. Since the fire was still far out of the city, deep in the mountains, two engines remained on patrol and observation assignment.
More apparatus dispatched
At approximately the same time, L.A. County’s Topanga Lookout notified the Malibu Dispatching Center: “Smoke—35 degrees—Soledad area.” The County’s Valley Dispatching Center was called by the Veterans Administration Hospital at San Fernando, reporting a grass fire northeast of the hospital. Patrol and Engine 74 responded into the foothills.
At 5:30 the Soledad Dispatching Center received a report from Station 107, northwest of the fire: “Citizen reports fire in vicinity of Bear Divide.” Battalion Chief Ben Seymour responded with Engines 73, 373, Patrols 73, 46 and four camp crews.
Then Patrol 74 radioed first-hand information: “This is a full-alarm fire. We are going in.”
The stage was set for the fire to make a run toward the VA hospital and Los Angeles County’s sprawling Olive View Sanatorium, nestled in the foothills.
Flames reach foothills
Don Porter, U. S. Forest Service information officer, gave the following report of the fire’s progress.
“The fire raced through Loop Canyon from Los Pinetos Peak, into May Canyon and then into Wilson Canyon near Olive View Sanatorium. By 9:00 a.m., only four hours after the fire started, the flames had reached the foothills. U. S. Forest Service forces were deployed along the ridge top called the Santa Clara Divide fuel break in an attempt to hold the fire to the south side of the mountains. They also worked on the flanks of the fire in the vicinity of Wilson Canyon on the west, and Loop and Cougar Canyons on the east. Los Angeles County File Department camp crews and equipment assisted regular Forest Service crews and equipment on this perimeter control action. Los Angeles City fire equipment, along with Los Angeles County fire trucks, were working the south line of the fire in the foothills, protecting homes and the two hospital facilities.”
A fleet of ambulances and busses was ordered in and an orderly, planned evacuation of nearly 750 patients from the two medical facilities was accomplished.
The fire fighters’ efforts paid off and the blaze was kept out of hospital buildings, although it did reach the Olive View grounds. Later that day, some patients returned to the facilities. It appeared that the fire crews had won—the north flank was holding, the winds seemed to be calming, danger to foothill homes had passed, some patients were returning.
11 El Cariso Hotshots severely burned as sudden wind shift sendsflames up hillsidetoengulf men; only3 escape injury
-L.A. City F.D. photo.
County F.D. photo
Porter described the tragedy:
“Shortly before 4:00 p.m., the El Cariso Hotshot Crew from the Cleveland National Forest was chopping a fire line on a steep hillside, one-half mile south of Pacoima Dam on the west side of Pacoima Canyon. A sudden flare-up of the fire occurred—an unexplained momentary change in the wind—sending firebrands and burning material into unburned brush and chaparral beneath them. In a matter of seconds, flames rushed up the hillside, engulfing the entire crew before the men had a chance to retreat to a preselected ‘safety area’ in a rock slide. Three of the crew escaped at the upper end of the slope, but the others in the 25-member elite El Cariso crew did not make it. Immediately, Forest Service personnel and Los Angeles County firemen came to their assistance, including a fire department helicopter piloted by Roland Barton and a Forest Service ‘contract’ helicopter piloted by Troy Cook. The helicopters dropped men off in the area by hovering and began the important job of transporting the burned and injured a short distance from the steep hillside to Pacoima Canyon below. The helicopters could not land in the steep area, so they merely hovered while the injured were hoisted into the passenger seat of the aircraft. Below in the Pacoima Wash, L. A. County firemen were receiving the burned crewmen from the copter and giving first aid. Without waiting for the ordered ambulances, the firemen transported the Hotshot crewmen by ear and station wagon to nearby Pacoima Lutheran and Holy Cross Hospitals in the San Fernando Valley.
“After the rescue of the injured was completed, the task of recovering the dead began. Darkness was now approaching. Throughout the early evening, two helicopters continued to fly in a daring recovery operation, bringing out the fatalities. Roland Barton continued to fly during the second operation and was assisted in the evening by a Los Angeles County Sheriff’s helicopter piloted by Lt. Lindell Griggers. Members of the volunteer Montrose, Sylmar, and Altadena Search and Rescue Teams participated.”
Sudden wind shift
Cordon King, superintendent of the crew, who was burned in the canyon with his crew, gave the following account: “It was a sudden shift in the wind—west wind that came out of nowhere and left fire in the middle of our crew.”
The total acreage burned was 2028.
The fire commander was William Beaty, U. S. Forest Service fire control officer. Chief Keith E. Klinger and Division Chief George Brunton commanded L.A. County forces. Deputy Chief Thomas Turley was in charge of L.A. City units.
The U. S. Forest Service had 25 fire trucks, 12 bulldozers, five helicopters, five air tankers (air tankers could not be used early in the fire because of extreme turbulence), 10 fire crews and two job corps crews on the fire.
County, city assignments
L. A. County assigned 27 pumpers, 15 bulldozers, eight patrols and eight camp crews.
L.A. City had 44 engines and one helicopter at the fire, and the California Division of Forestry, nine conservation crews. The Veterans Administration Center in West Los Angeles sent four pumpers to the San Fernando VA facility.
Operations were complicated in the late morning when three fires broke out at the western end of the San Fernando Valley in the Chatsworth area of the Santa Susana Mountains. Los Angeles County, Ventura County and Los Angeles City units joined in efforts to bring these fires under control without loss of life or property.