THE WELLMAN FIRE
June 11-23, 1966
“Nature is quite capable of betraying the heart that loves her. But if she is not dependably the Kind Mother neither is she always ‘red in tooth and claw.’ By our standards she is sometimes the one; sometimes the other. Her processes do not correspond exactly to any set of values we formulate. We must say of her only that she is what she is, sometimes what we wish her to be, sometimes repugnant to us. We both admire and are repelled. We co-operate and we resist. We dare not follow her blindly.
“But neither can we afford not to learn from her. She is magnificent and inscrutable....Ambiguous creatures that we are we can neither be satisfied with nature nor happy unless we achieve some compromise with her.”
Joseph Wood Krutch
Baja California and the Geography of Hope
“MEN ENTERED THIS WILDERNESS when all wildernesses in the West were being entered. But here, in the end, they were driven out by a wilderness that gave only the slightest edge to man.
“But even in the most gentle area of the wilderness a dry year, usually a series of dry years, was a real ordeal; even in the good years the work on a homestead was hard beyond anything we know today. The presence of civilization a day down the river exposed these latter day pioneers to temptations of an easier life that tested the dream of having one’s own land as earlier settlers in America were not tested.
“With the exception of occasional cowboys, the silence of wilderness settled over the Sisquoc, the houses year by year finally collapsing. Fireplaces remained, old farm equipment, stores, bottles, cooking utensils, locked in with the lost trails, condors, and rock paintings.
“It was the sort of experience that drove people out of this country for gentler lands. Homesteaders would come in on a good year and see the grass high and heavy grained and taste sweet water and witness game and fish for the taking; it was unbelievably hard work, but they were moved by a vision of a place of their own. Then the hard years would come, the dry years. Insects would multiply, water dry up, and the game suddenly disappear. The people would get out. Had they stayed of course, the roads, houses, no trespassing signs would be there as they are in the gentler lands.
“Go there in the spring when the grass is green and the earth breathes with moisture and lets you breathe. Then you will understand why every watered, tree-shaded meadow place of any size once knew a homestead. But you had better stay out during the bad times whose inevitable return has always ensured that these same meadows would never be permanently inhabited. And belong to all of us.”
These are a few of the words written by Bill Richardson in a story called The Wilderness That Survived, one of the few stories not destroyed in the Coyote Fire on that terrible night of terror. 54
IT IS A LAND KNOWN simply as the Santa Barbara backcountry. From the top of La Cumbre Peak, in the evening light, you can look out across the Santa Ynez Valley and see the high country of the San Rafaels, which bespeak of what lies beyond. It is not easy to describe such land, or to get a feeling for it. In many ways it is a foreign land, not easily romanticized, one where you need to come to grips with yourself as much as you do the land.
I have been there in springtime, when the flowers are in bloom, the smell of the lupine so sweet that it bowls you over, the pastel colors as rich as a fine pastry. I have seen the high country, full of Sierra views and island panoramas, and sweated through a hot afternoon crossing Hurricane Deck, wondering why I wanted to punish myself so, and frozen in the Mission Pines when an unexpected snow storm descended on me.
There have been the starlight evenings by quiet streams and torrential rains that have caught me by surprise and without tent. I have listened to the sound of the coyote and been frightened by a camp-wise bear; and marvelled at the tenacity of those who came before me, pioneer stock—like Davy Brown, Hiram Preserved Wheat, Josiah Montgomery, and Adolf Wilman. I have sat in the Chumash caves, and listened patiently, wondering at the messages they offer me. And I have sat at the headstone of little Bessie Wells, who died at age 3 months, and known the awful cost that was borne by those who chose the backcountry lifestyle.
It is a land that has but two faces—spring and summer—only there the summer lasts most of the year. The topography is basic—peaks and ridges, deep gorges and narrow valleys, winding canyons, and broad valleys, mostly a maze of crumpled mountains and streams, dry much of the year, which run in all directions. It is a land of yo-yo—you either seem to be going up or down. To some it has a forbidding aspect; to others, like myself and perhaps the Bill Richardsons of the world, its raw wildness suggests challenge, and a certain courage and determination to deal with it.
It’s simply wild country. A hunk of backcountry that you can’t get into unless you are willing to walk, a place that has remained inviolate because so little of what we call progress has marred it. Nor is there anything special about the trails into this country. They simply act as filters, separating out those who are appreciative of what lies beyond, those who are willing to undergo a measure of hardship to experience what the land has to offer.
Often, I have wondered how long it will be until the 20th Century catches up with this country. What has saved it thus far from the fate which has overtaken much of the country is the state of the roads—there are none.
Perhaps there never will be. Today, this is not just wild country, but wilderness, land officially dedicated by Congress as a place where man will remain a perpetual visitor.
While most Santa Barbarans have been preoccupied with the fire on the hills immediately behind them, they also recognized that what happens to the backcountry is also critically important to them, since that is where the watersheds which are vital to filling county reservoirs are.
For the Forest Service, beginning in the Nash-Boulden era, access to the backcountry has always been the kingpin of fire policy. To gain this access, the Forest Service proposes construction of a series of roads, one across the Hurricane Deck, another from Upper Oso over Big Pine Mountain to the Sierra Madre Mountains.
But beginning in the 1930s, for a variety of reasons, rather than being opened up, this country is retained in its wild, rugged, and roadless condition. On of these reasons is concern for the critically-55
endangered California condor; another is development of a widespread national wilderness movement, which favors designation of areas like the Santa Barbara backcountry as permanent roadless preserves.
ON FRIDAY, JUNE 29, 1934 a light breeze stirs along the slopes of the Sierra Madre Mountains providing the characteristic currents which have made them the primary flyway of the California condor. The cavalcade of friends, including Robert Easton and his son Bob, proceed slowly up the sharp angular trail by horseback.
There are nine people on the expedition, all brought together by the senior Easton, then secretary and manager of the Sisquoc Investment Company, which owns this 40-acre parcel of meadow and sandstone outcropping known as Montgomery Potrero. Anticipation rises with the gain in elevation. The miles seem to drag on, but then suddenly a high grassy ridge can be seen out of which rise rounded masses of weather-sculptured sandstone. Circling above are the large dark birds.
Several days prior to the trip Bob and a friend from the Cuyama Valley have prepared a blind from which to view the condors with as little disturbance as possible. A hundred yards from the blind they place the carcass of an old work horse as bait for the carrion-eating condors, carefully positioning it for photographic purposes.
It has worked. A half-mile short of the blind Easton motions the party to stop, disarmed by the rare display before him, his attention drawn to the cloud of birds milling about in the air above the bait.
“Across, and around, and in and out of the circling mass of lesser birds: crows, ravens, and turkey vultures, we descried greater forms gliding steadily and majestically in wider and unwavering orbits,” ornithologist Ernest Dyer, a close friend of the elder Easton, later writes. During the trip he also produces the first motion pictures ever taken of the condor.
“It was at this moment we realized that we were, at last, beholding a portion—too large a portion—of the pitiful remnant of that great race that once ranged, even in prehistoric times, from Baja California on the south, northward through the full length of Alta California up into Oregon and Washington, perhaps even further.”
Dismounting in a hollow beneath a cluster of live oak and conifer to hide their presence and peering cautiously over its rim Easton and Dyer are met with what seems a reception committee, as three condors detach from the whirling assemblage and sail grandly overhead, eyeing the strangers keenly. The birds pass so closely that there is no difficulty in seeing their enormous size—nearly 10 feet in wingspread and 25 pounds in body weight. The white patches under the wings of the two adults, as well as the lack of them on a third, a juvenile, indicate the condors’ nesting area was probably nearby.
“We have seen the condors and they have presented a spectacle that I would not have missed for anything,” Easton whispers in amazement.
This trip leads Robert Easton and his son Bobbie on a monumental journey, which occupies much of their time for the next three years. They have been convinced that a sanctuary for the condors must be created and it must be along the Sisquoc River.
Ironically they discover that one of their main opponents is Forest Supervisor Stephen Nash-Boulden, who is making use of the CCC crews to grid the forest with access roads to aid in fire sup56
pression. One of these is the proposed Hurricane Deck Road which will cut through a narrow drainage called Lost Valley, a mile upstream on the Manzana from NIRA camp, then pass over the Deck, up the Sisquoc River, and within a mile of the sanctuary which the Eastons hope will be created.
They beseech the Forest Supervisor, but to no avail. “It does not seem possible,” he tells them. “This proposed river road up the Sisquoc River is a key road in that any alteration from its present route would seriously affect our planned hourly method of fire suppression.”
“I think the Sisquoc Ranch would give you a right of way through our land at Montgomery Potrero for your planned road along the Sierra Madre Ridge,” the wily Easton responds, “if the Hurricane Deck Road were stopped. Why not see if this fire access is sufficient without one up the Sisquoc?”
Nash-Boulden takes the offer. On New Year’s Day, 1937, the Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary comes into existence and the Forest Service adds a valuable ridgeline corridor, the Sierra Madre Ridge Road, to their fire suppression network.
Despite their gains, the Forest Service loses a valuable access route through the center of the backcountry. This does not seem so bad until June, 1966 when the Wellman Fire starts at the base of the Sierra Madre Mountains.
IN THE 1960S THERE IS a second effort to open up the backcountry, this time not for fire acess, but to provide recreational opportunities for growing numbers of Santa Barbarans who want to enjoy the hiking, fishing, and camping this country offers. But this conflicts with those who want to restrict access to protect the condor sanctuary and important Chumash rock art sites.
The Sierra Madre Mountains, unlike the San Rafael range, rise from canyon and valley to form broad grass-covered potreros along the crest. The names are picturesque—Salisbury, Pine Corral, Montgomery Potrero--their beauty even more so. Windswept sandstone rocks are interspersed throughout the grass-filled plains, giving them both a soft and intensely prehistoric look.
In one outcropping is a small cave which some people believe is the Sapatski, or House of the Sun, the center of the celestial world of the Chumash. The womb-like cave is just under head height, six feet deep, and sheltered from wind and summer heat. In the top of the cave a red mandala has been painted, long enough ago so all that remains of the image is the stain which has been absorbed by the tiny crystals of sand in the rock.
These meadows are very mystical and powerful places, a land where the spirit of the Chumash, does indeed, still exist. It is a land that Bob Easton, the son, has traveled frequently, both as a young boy and now as an adult. “I always thought I could hear the footsteps of the Chumash just ahead of me,” he says.
He and other conservationists are outraged in the early 1960s when the current Forest Supervisor, Bill Hansen, proposes to widen the Sierra Madre Ridge Road to two lanes and open the Sierra Madre Mountains to public travel.
“A policy of exclusion is a pretty poor policy,” Hansen states.
“A road along the Sierra Ridge,” responds Sierra Club spokesman Fred Eissler, “would only multiply the fire dangers by throwing the area open to mass public use. It would also threaten the wilderness and the wildlife such as the condors.”57
The Audubon Society and other groups join in opposition to the project. They are not only worried that such a road would endanger the condors which use the nearby Sisquoc sanctuary as a nesting and bathing site, but also that it will seriously impact the backcountry’s wilderness character.
As a united force, the conservationists flex their muscles and stop the proposed expansion.
When, on September 3, 1964 President Lyndon Johnson signs the historic National Wilderness Act, designed to preserve a part of America in as natural a state as possible, it appears that most of the San Rafael country will be kept in a wild and roadless state.
Wilderness,” the act says, is “an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man...where man himself is a visitor and does not remain.”
The San Rafael Wild Area is the first to be studied for inclusion into the National Wilderness preservation System. But there is a great deal of controversy over exactly how much protection this wilderness land should receive. The Forest Service is worried that their fire protection efforts will be severely hampered if the new wilderness encompasses too much territory. Santa Marians believe that they will be asked to pay too heavy a price. The Manzana and Sisquoc watersheds feed directly into the Santa Maria Valley and are critical to resupplying the water basin there.
The Forest Service proposes a 74,854-acre wilderness for the Santa Barbara backcountry, the first area to be studied for inclusion into the wilderness system. This will include all the land between Manzana Creek and the Sisquoc River, but will extend only halfway to the top of the mountain slopes on either side of these rivers. Hansen is wary of boundaries that extend to the mountaintops because this will make fire suppression efforts extremely difficult. Unable to open up the Sierra Madre Ridge Road, due to public opinion, he is absolutely opposed to parts of it being inside wilderness boundaries.
Conservationists, including the younger Easton, argue for a wilderness of some 158,00 acres which would include the entire watershed within the San Rafael and Sierra Madre Mountains, as well as Montgomery Potrero. If this becomes the wilderness boundary, a portion of the Sierra Madre Road will be part of the San Rafael Wilderness.
Give-and-take between the Forest Service and conservationists resolve all of their differences, save that over the 2,200 acre parcel in the Sierra Madre Mountains. Bob Easton and several others fly to Washington to testify as to the wilderness value of this piece, its importance as a flyway for the California condor, and the Chumash village sites and rock art which remain there.
Congress seems just as split over the issue as local citizens and the Forest Service are. While the House of Representatives votes to include Montgomery Potrero within the boundaries of the San Rafael Wilderness, the Senate, to the contrary, does not include it in their version. A Conference Committee is created to settle the Congressional differences.
In the midst of these negotiations a fire breaks out on the Sisquoc River at the mouth of Wellman Canyon. Because of the rugged, roadless, and wilderness character of the land, it is a fire that is excruciatingly difficult to fight.
THE CESSNA 180 IS LOADED with four airmen from Vandenburg Air Force Base. It takes off from Lompoc about 7 pm the evening of June 11, 1966, a Sunday, on a sightseeing trip over the San Rafael Mountains. Making a critical mistake in judgement, the pilot attempts to land on Wellman Mesa, a wide plateau about 6 miles upstream from the confluence of the Sisquoc and Manzana.58
Believing he has a down-canyon wind holding him back he approaches faster than he should have. As the wheels touch and the pilot begins to brake, the tail keeps coming up, and he realizes that he actually has an upcanyon tailwind which is pushing him. He is going too fast to stop at the end of the mesa.
Finally the pilot decides to take off again. He almost makes it. Just as the airmen relax, the tail wheel hits a bush, causing the plane to tip and turn. The wing scrapes across the upper surface of a rock then slams into a juniper, and shears off. The plane skids helplessly over the edge of the rim, drops 150 feet, and smashes into an edge of the Sisquoc riverbed at takeoff speed, where it splits in two.
The two servicemen in the rear of the plane survive. Still conscious, both of them suffer broken legs but are able to crawl away from the wreck before it bursts into flame. The two men in the front are trapped, dying of what the coroner calls “multiple extreme injuries along with incineration.”
Just after sunset the pilot of a commercial airliner, heading from LA to San Francisco, sees a burst of flame in the mountains to his left. He reports it, noting his location and the direction from which it has come. This information is relayed to Santa Barbara fire officials, but they do not send anyone out to investigate the report because they believe it is another fire, the Oso Fire, which has broken out near Los Prietos Boys Camp.
Coincidentally, the plane crash is on a direct line inbetween the airliner and the Oso Fire.
The fire, which will be called the Wellman Fire, burns all night, and because men and equipment have not gotten to it soon enough, any chance of halting it is lost.
On Sunday morning, September 12, Carl Hickerson, Los Padres fire control officer, and his assistant, Howard Mansfield, are at the Oso Fire near Los Prietos Boys Camp, having just gotten the chance to rest for a few minutes after fighting the fire all night.
But at 6 am they are boarding a helicopter, headed north, after receiving a report from the La Cumbre Lookout Tower of a cloud of smoke rising from the backcountry at 5:18 am. As they circle in the chopper, looking for the source of the smoke, they do not yet know that a plane has crashed.
But as they reached the area where the plume of smoke is originating they spot the wreckage and two men, who are waving at them from the ground. Quickly they order the pilot to land near the wreckage. It is 6:30 am.
The two airmen explain that they have spent the entire night trying to avoid the fire, which had been touched off when a tank on the remaining wing burst open in the crash. “Have you come to rescue us,” one of the dazed men asks, “or to put the fire out?”
“Both,” is the reply.
Because they cannot radio out from deep in this inaccessible canyon, Hickerson returns to the helicopter along with the pilot while Mansfield tends to the injured airmen. Once high enough in the air to make contact, an immediate request is made for a doctor.
“Get all the help you can lay your hands on,” Carl Hickerson then shouts into the mike, “the fire is spreading rapidly and it’s already over 300 acres in size.”
“To know what kind of terrain the Wellman Canyon fire is raging over,” News-Press reporter 59
Dick Smith writes, “one has to have walked the ridges and the canyon bottoms.” It is rough terrain and inaccessible from all sides, save the Sierra Madre Ridge Road. And it is extremely vulnerable to fire.
There have been none here since the 1920s, and slopes that the Eastons once climbed on horseback on their way to Montgomery Potrero are choked with impenetrable brush. “The brush is so thick and so high,” Smith notes, “that the deer are barely able to find their way through.”
For the first time, the Forest Service is faced with fighting a wilderness fire in an area where there are no easy staging points, no solid ridgelines which they know can be held, no roads on which to haul in supplies and equipment, nor any way of getting pumpers on the fire line.
By noon on Sunday 3,000 acres have been burned, the flames gulping the dry fuel at an unbelievable rate in all directions. To the north, the fire burns rapidly upslope towards the Sierra Madre Mountains, eating its way through the thick grasses and chaparral quickly. To the west it follows the Sisquoc River downstream, the wide river valley containing expanses of grass and hillsides thick with chaparral, ominously heading towards the Santa Maria Valley. Southward, the flames attack heavy brush covering Hurricane Deck, moving rapidly towards the San Rafael Mountains and the Santa Ynez Valley. Upstream, to the east it burns unchecked towards the condor sanctuary created through the work of the Eastons in the 1930s.
The men watch helplessly as the fire burns through the rugged interior of the backcountry, eating the heart out of this vast wilderness area. By Monday evening, in just two days’ time, it has burned 32,000 acres.
Fighting a forest fire as gigantic as this one is very much like fighting a war,” District Ranger Ed Morris explains to a reporter. “What is adds up to is having the right equipment with the right men at the right place and at the right time.”
“Of course,” he adds, “ just as in war, the enemy sometimes overruns the best-laid plans.”
By Tuesday morning there are more than 2,300 firefighters in place. But it is increasingly evident that in this wild and roadless area it is impossible to get the right men with the right equipment to the right places at the right time. “It’s not just a matter of having good enough roads,” one reporter notes, “it’s having any roads at all.”
The Wellman Fire is a logistical nightmare.
Carl Hickerson, along with Howard Mansfield, run the operation from headquarters established at Santa Ynez Airport. They divide the men into four armies, each assigned to a fire zone. Zone 1, under the command of San Bernardino Fire Control Officer (FCO) Lynn Biddison, is set up at Tunnel Ranch, several miles downstream on the Sisquoc from Manzana Schoolhouse, their job to set a line in place from the Sisquoc to the Sierra Madre ridge to halt the fire’s advance towards Santa Maria.
The second fire base is set up at Davy Brown Campground, the commanding officer Ed Corpe, FCO from Tahoe National Forest. Under his supervision crews work frantically to build a line that will keep the fire from crossing Manzana Creek, racing over the San Rafael Mountains, and threatening the Santa Ynez Valley.
The remaining two are at Miranda Pines and Montgomery Potrero in the Sierra Madres and are under the command of FCOs from Sierra and Angeles National Forests. It is their responsibility 60
to stop the fire at the crest of the Sierra Madres, before it can cross over and down into the Cuyama Valley.
The troops are becoming increasingly frustrated. This is the closest they can get to the edge of the fire by vehicle. From here they must walk.
By dawn on Tuesday the figure has risen to 48,000 acres.
From 8 am to 2 pm, driven by temperatures in the high 90s and 20-25 mph winds, the fire makes a horrifying run, torching an additional 15,000 acres. Having burned out the interior of the wilderness area, the fire now threatens to spill out of the backcountry and into the Cuyama and Santa Ynez Valleys. This becomes the fire’s most critical day.
Crews from Davy Brown prepare to make a last ditch stand near Hurricane Deck, hoping to keep it from burning into Sulphur Springs Canyon, and from there through the upper end of the Manzana watershed. Unable to be trucked in, and without the support of the pumpers, the crews walk to the fire line across a high plateau and into Lost Valley, axes and shovels all that they have to fight with. The route they follow is what might have been the Hurricane Deck/Sisquoc River Road, had its construction not been halted to protect the condor sanctuary.
In the morning the fire blazes over Hurricane Deck, a two-mile wide flame that approaches the men. Hundreds of them use pick, shovel, and axe to widen the rough fire line. In the intense heat the work is backbreaking.
The flames surge. Many of the men are forced to drop their tools and run for their lives and at 2:45 pm the Hurricane Deck line is lost. The fire spills over into Sulphur Springs Canyon, consuming everything, leaving charred devastation in its wake, and by early evening they have crossed into the upper Manzana watershed.
“A blood-red sun looked down through the smoke at acres dusted white as snow with the ashes of trees, brush and grass,” News-Press reporter Barney Brantingham notes, after the smoke has cleared. “Evergreens became stark skeletons. The few rabbits and other animals that lived through the holocaust ran about panicky. Rattlesnakes, driven singed and angry from their holes, added a new hazard the the firefighters.
“A few remaining pine trees stood vigil, along with spikes of yucca burned to a crisp in mid-blossom. Flaming yucca stalks rolled down steep hills, starting new fires.”
Firefighters retreat, preparing to make their next stand on the San Rafael ridgeline. Near Cachuma Saddle many of the 400-500 Indians, who have been flown in from Arizona and New Mexico, rest, readying themselves for the night’s battle over control of the ridgeline. They are weary, but not enough so as to lose their sense of humor.
“No excitement today,” one of them replies to a questions about what they have done today, “We just killed rattlesnakes.”
In the Sierra Madre Mountains the fire now burns along more than a 10-mile front. Along the more open potrero lands of the eastern Sierra Madre Mountains firefighters are able to hold the Ridge Road. But from McPherson Peak to Bates Canyon, where the chaparral is denser, the flames breech the mountaintop line and they begin to slop over the north side.
That evening, Cuyama residents stand outside their homes and watch as two columns of fire make their way towards them. As ranchers in the foothills beneath the flames begin to evacuate their cattle, Fire Chief Vic Mohr prepares to defend ranch structures and homes from the fire. Pumpers 61
are dispersed to the ranches; bull dozers scrape dirt rings around the houses.
“We won’t fool with the brush on the slopes,” Mohr announces. “We’re going right out in the grass on the valley floor with a firebreak.” Along with 30 men, 9 pumpers, and 3 bulldozers County Fire digs in along a five-mile line between the town of New Cuyama and the slopes of the Sierra Madre Mountains. Prepared to backfire the foothills, if necessary, to make their stand, the men pray that they will be able to handle any slopovers before they reach the valley floor and spread out into the private lands.
“There’s no looking down into the jaws of the inferno,” Dick Smith reports from his view in a Cessna 172 above the fire. “It’s too hot, and too covered with haze, smoke and ashes....In our eyes was the awareness of the magnitude and awesome potential of the days ahead.
“We turned toward Santa Maria to get out of the heavy smoke and ash-filled sky. It was thick flying all the way. As we turned, we could see the borate bombers coming out on the Cuyama side of the smoke. How had they been able to poke their planes through the heavy, blinding fire-smoke I’ll never know, but plane after plane made it in and out again in the few moments we watched.
“Over Santa Maria the sun was glowing with a strange orange light. As we looked down on the reflections of the sun in Santa Maria area reservoirs, they flashed back with a brilliant orange hue. It was trying to tell us that the fire was indeed tied to Santa Maria. It was having an effect on the city and the valley behind it. After all, the area burning is the Santa Maria watershed.
“From the air this Wellman blaze looks for all the world like a major holocaust with no end in sight....The massive smoke that climaxed into gigantic, 20,000 foot high ‘thunderclouds’ yesterday could be seen from a radius of more than 100 miles in any direction. From a distance it must have looked like weather, but from up near this mass of smoke and gas, it was the cap of a fire of unbelievable proportions.
“Down at the bottom of the smoke one could see the intense red and red-orange of the hot fire burning from the brush-choked hillside of the Sisquoc drainage. We could see the fingers of flame as they leaped over Bates Ridge.”
Tuesday evening Santa Barbarans become more worried amidst reports that the Wellman Fire is about to burn into the Santa Ynez Valley. By late Tuesday afternoon the fire line has crossed the Manzana on a 5-mile line from Fish Creek to Manzana Narrows.
A hot shot crew is helicoptered in to the top of 6,593 foot San Rafael Mountain to build a hand line from there down the north side of the mountain to White Ledge. In a small flat grass-covered saddle known as Hell’s Half Acre, brush and trees are cut down so that the helicopters can land with fresh troops. Scores of pumpers and hundreds of firefighters are strung out along Figueroa Mountain Road and the Figueroa Catway from Cachuma Saddle to Zaca Peak.
They do not wait passively. Now that they have a secure line that can be held with confidence, the backfiring begins. While the firefighters fan out near the brush to make sure that the flames don’t turn back on them, the butane torches are put to work. From the Santa Ynez Valley the first glow of orange-red is frightening; they are sure the fire has broken through. The backfires, despite their ominous look, are successful in securing this line.
Bombers hammer both the Sierra Madre and San Rafael ridgelines, making scores of drops on each of them from the Cuyama Airport. The heavy bombers make mincemeat of the airport runway, 62
this threatening to ground the planes. But in the night 30,000 square feet of metal landing strip are brought in from Port Hueneme during the night and it is usable again by morning.
The hot shots work their way up into the hottest part of the fire and are able to get above it near McKinley Mountain. While they hack away stubbornly, cutting through the trees and brush at a furious pace, the towering flames lick at their heels. Airdrops put down on top of them help to knock down the fire. There is no time to sleep, and with no place to sleep anyway, the Hot Shots work throughout the night, twenty hours straight, reaching a jeepway connecting with Santa Cruz Peak just after dawn.
Wednesday morning, from Santa Ynez Airport Forest Service Supervisor Bill Hansen confers with Fire Boss Carl Hickerson. In contrast to last night’s spectacular flames which burned along the entire western crest of the San Rafael Mountains, that morning all that remain are long plumes of smoke. “On one side, everything was mantled with a velvety-green and the big pines stood thick over the mountainsides,”News-Press reporter Dick Smith says as he surveys the previous night’s damage from the air. “On the other, an ashen-gray pallor lay over the land, covering both sides of the Sisquoc, the Hurricane Deck, and surrounding Cachuma Mountain. At Wellman Canyon, where the fire got its night start the wreckage of the plane that caused it could be spotted glinting in the sun.”
Both Hansen and Hickerson are still tense, though less so than the previous night. The backfires set along Figueroa Mountain Road and on the north side of Cachuma Mountain have contained the flames in this area and kept the fire from spreading west of Happy Canyon Road and down into the Santa Ynez Valley. Reports from Zone 1 indicate that the fire has been checked in this area too, just below Manzana Schoolhouse. From the Cuyama Valley also comes good news from County Fire Chief Vic Mohr--his lines should be held as well.
But the fire still rages in the upper watershed of Manzana Creek and in the White Ledge area, threatening to burn over the crest of McKinley and San Rafael Mountains and across their northern slopes to Big Pine Mountain. Wednesday afternoon an additional 140 men are brought in to a staging area at Hell’s Half Acre just below McKinley Mountain which is now considered the most critical hot spot. The men move up the steep chaparral-covered hillsides armed not with sophisticated weaponry but picks and shovels to combat the flames. In some cases they are foced to use ropes to scramble up and over rock ledges and cliffs in their assault on the fire. Above them B-17s and B-26s continue to blast the brush with fire retardant chemicals to slow the rate at which the fire moves towards them, hoping to give the ground troops enough time to open up a cleared zone.
Below them, along the Sisquoc, a fifth fire camp is establised to work the fire from the bottom. It is the first ever camp to be supplied completely from the air. Lynn Biddison, who has been in charge of Zone 1 is the first to arrive, by helicopter. Along with a small crew he sets up radio contact and a rudimentary headquarters. The DC-3 from Bakersfield is guided in by another helicopter which Biddison has already clearly marked, and by parachute it drops enough food, fire equipment, and overnight shelters for 250 men.
Meanwhile the men have been trucked in to the closest spot—eight miles from the “drop camp”—but they are in place several hours later. Quickly they break open the boxes, which have been well padded for the drop. Stoves, griddles, ovens, pans, papers plates, plastic utensils, and everything else needed to supply the men with food are assembled. Hand tools, cots, sleeping bags, 63
axes, first aid gear and the like are also set out. A giant cargo helicopter also lands nearby, bringing enough food to stock a small store, including fruit juice on ice and even ice cream.
Almost immediately a fleet of smaller helicopters begins to ferry the firefighters to the fire line, in this case White Ledge. In just 10 years since its initial use on a wildfire, heli-attack has become a major component of Forest Service fire strategy. In wilderness country, where there are no roads, it has become essential.
Once on the fire line the helicopter serves as the men’s umbilical cord. They don’t even have to come out for meals. The helicopter brings it to wherever they are, lowering it in a box if it cannot land.
“While this might be more expensive, the men get more work done in faster time,” Dick Smith reports. “It is safer, too, for helicopters close to the fire can make spot checks on hot areas and direct crews to them.” Also, Smith notes, the helicopter has provided a means “to put them out without cutting permanent roads into wilderness areas.”
While the crews work feverishly to put a halt to what has so far been a mad rush through the heart of the Santa Barbara backcountry, on Thursday, for the first time since the fire’s beginning on Saturday night, the weather changes. Thundershower conditions develop, and while they are lacking in measurable rain, the lower temperatures and increased humidity slow the fire down dramatically. “We got a good break in the weather, and all of us got a little sleep last night,” Vic Mohr tells reporters.
It is not until the following Wednesday, however, that a firm perimeter has been established and Supervisor Bill Hansen is able to announce that the Wellman Fire, after consuming 93,000 acres, is fully contained.
“As we cruised over it, a giant Flying Fortress far below attacked the massive upthrust of the mountain wall,” Steve Sullivan writes, describing the end of the fire battle.
“Looking like a toy plane on a string as it swept twice around the peak, the big B-17 sought out the most vulnerable spot, darted in and dumped its cargo of chemicals, and retreated.
“In its wake an orange-red billow tinged the green slope.
“More than a grandstand seat at an air show, this high vantage point over McKinley Mountain in Los Padres National Forest made us witnesses to the last licks of death being dealt the Wellman Fire—second largest in the recorded history of this county.
“To the west, north, and east lay a vast field of destruction, a haze-blanketed moonscape covering 92,000 acres of the forest’s prime undisturbed land.
“In the bowl between the escarpments of the San Rafael and Sierra Madre Ranges--from whose foothills the Santa Ynez and Cuyama Valleys break away to flat, inhabited land—the stark, ash-covered slopes reach for miles....they appear to have been gnawed and chewed by some ravenous monster that left it an intolerable badlands carvedby its toothmarks.”
I FIRST VISITED Hurricane Deck three years later. It is early autumn, not too long after the 1969 floods, and the evidence of massive siltation is evident along the upper Manzana, a boulder-strewn maze of watercourses and flood plains. Many of the alders along the vertical walls of Manzana Narrows have been destroyed, and in many places the trail no longer exists, having been washed out along the rain-swelled riverbed.64
It isn’t until I climbed the switchbacks out of the Narrows to the Hurricane Deck that the full effect of the fire’s damage is apparent. All that remains of the chaparral are the burned out sticks of the thicker branches. Many of them are burned right to the crown of their burls. The digger pines—talls graceful, and long-needled—are mostly dead looking, their trucks scorched by the fire’s intensity.
I am appalled when I see this.
But I return often, nevertheless, drawn by the primitive feeling of the country and the sandstone bedrock of the area. White Ledge is especially appealing, the rock intensely white and full of places to explore. On one trip I discover a rock art site, one that Bob Easton later tells me he called “The Red God” when he first saw it in the 1920s. On another I find a small valley hidden in a v-shaped notch above the Narrows, with a small waterfall and in its overhang several bedrock mortars, one with a piece of a pestle still in place.
Most of all, what I discover as I come back year after year, is the beauty of watching the slow, unyielding processes of nature unfolding, the land restoring itself, with a fullness and an abundance made possible by the fire. In the wilderness I begin to see fire not only as destructive, but necessary; not necessarily ugly, but beautiful.
It comes to me that, if indeed, we are ever to be satisfied with our relationship with fire, we are going to have to make to some sort of compromise with it.
We are going to need to learn to live with fire.
“Look to the land and see what it needs,” Biology Professor Cowles stresses in a report issued by the Santa Barbara County Board of Supervisors on March 15, 1967 in response to the Wellman Fire. “Learn to work with the land.”
The thought is similar in Yosemite where, after recent fires there in the summer of 1990, Park Service officials do not even think of “repairing” the fire damage.
“It’s not necessary to repair because it’s not broken,” spokesman John Dennis says, “fire is just the next phase in an ever-changing process. You could see this not as a disaster but as a unique opportunity for people of our generation to see a process we won’t be able to see again for another three or four generations.”
But on the urban edge, especially in heavily populated Southern California, Forest Service officials find it tough to talk about restoring natural processes, even in areas such as the San Rafael Wilderness where these processes are supposed to prevail. Still, by the early 1970s they are open at least to considering use of fire in a prescribed fashion to reduce the chaparral hazard.
In wilderness areas, however, where man is not allowed to use fire for human needs such as fuel conversion, watershed values, or protecting structures, this poses a different sort of problem.
“What’s natural?” one forest ranger asks, putting his hands up in the air. How do you know what was really here before man came? How far back do you go?” Others pose a more basic question—Just what will be man’s role and responsibilitiy if he does begin to allow fire back into the landscape?
Notwithstanding the fact that lightning has been part of the natural landscape for millions of years, and that fire may have been introduced by the Chumash as many as 10,000 years ago, today’s 65
“natural” environment has been profoundly altered by by man, more probably by control over fire than perhaps any other of nature’s elements.
The return of fire is less likely to restore an ancient landscape than it is to fashion one unlike any that has ever before existed. Re-introducing fire brings with it just as much potential for shaping the land as suppressing it has in the past.
Use of prescribed burning is not just a matter of perfecting techniques. It involves fundamental philosophical questions. “For more than a half-century, it has been public policy to suppress all brush and forest fires, yet contrary to Smokey the Bear’s conventional wisdom, not all fires may be harmful,” Siera Club staff writer Michael R. Eaton says. What this new view of fire holds for the future, however, is less clear to see.
A new era is about to begin, one in which not every fire is suppressed. One in which not every fire is bad. One in which the Forest Service is placed in the ironic role of preventing fires by starting them.
The Forest Service dilemma is expressed well in a seminal book, Fire in America, by Stephen Pyne. “Fire cannot be entirely eliminated,” he says, “if only because so many landscapes have become dependent on anthropogenic fire practices. Many tens of millennia ago mankind made a pact with fire. Its heritage of fire is one that mankind cannot repudiate, and this legacy imposes a responsibility that cannot be easily abdictated by appeal to a hypothetical state of nature. Fire is as effective by being applied as by being suppressed, and man cannot avoid responsibility for fire management. It was as keeper of the flame that man first became steward of the land.”
In 1974, when local Forest Service officials conduct the first prescribed burn in the Los Padres National Forest, a new phase of stewardship begins.