Wellman Fire -



San Rafael Wilderness

THE WELLMAN FIRE - June 11-23, 1966
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.....

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Wellman Fire Details

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Notes for the El Cariso Hot Shots
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.


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Last Updated: Thursday, August 13, 2015