Wheeler Fire 1985

July 1-15, 1985

“We don’t put fire protection over human life. The only time you would risk a life would be when human lives are at stake—such as occurs commonly with city and county firemen. It becomes less clear in fighting brush fires, when you can’t completely predict or control the wind conditions and other factors. We don’t plan to lose people—we sure don’t. But when a brush fire is sweeping along uncontrolled in an area directly above places of human habitation, it requires the best men and the closest type of figuring to control it and there are risks inherent in this type of work. There is no such thing as completely safe fire fighting in brush....

“In my view of the cumulative effect that led to the tragedy [four deaths in the Romero Fire]—you know firefighting is risky—and everything you do has a certain risk to it—you can’t make a quick or completely rigid decision. You have to take safeguards....

“All the options selected in that fateful three or four hours before the men lost their lives lessened their margin of safety. The decisions weren’t made that way, to lessen it. But each of those series of coincidences kept lessening the safety margin until, finally, all they had left to do was to climb under those cats—and that wasn’t good enough. Good enough for the upper two men, but not good enough for the four men down below.”

Robert Lancaster
Los Padres Forest Supervisor

THE RIVERSIDE FIRE LAB—one of the most potent weapons in the war on wildfires—is in a fairly nondescript location, a converted warehouse tucked between a few modest homes and an RTD parking lot.

Inside the command center are walled-sized maps of California and dispatchers at communications modules, speaking in soft tones as they deal with allocating field resources and the hundreds of emergency requests that come in during the peak of fire season. When the fires come, they come in bunches. The intensely hot weather and santa ana conditions that occur periodically throughout the state in the summer causes the fires to burst forth like kernels of popcorn in a hot frying pan. 

It is Sunday, June 30, when the 1985 fire season turns from one of potential trouble into a concentrated week of intense conflagration. It has been hot everywhere in the state. For the four preceeding days prior to the start of these fires it has been unseasonably hot. Near Ojai the temperature is 102 degrees and the relative humidity a very dry 16 per cent. Although there has been 19 inches of rain during the season, almost normal. But only .83 inches of this has occurred since Christmas Day, 1984, and none has fallen since April 18, when .12 inches is recorded near Wheeler Gorge. 

Near Santa Margarita Lake, just a few miles from San Luis Obispo it is 105 degrees. The humidity there approaches is a scant 8 per cent. Elsewhere in the state, temperatures are in the three digits. All that is needed is a spark, most of which are caused by arsonists. Before the week is over, more 109 

than 100 homes will have been destroyed and 100,000 acres burned. Three people will perish in the flames.

The first call to the command center on Sunday comes from the Sierras. A fire has broken out above Hetch Hetchy Reservoir and National Park Service officials are requesting air support. Another is from the Ventura area. Still another is received from the incident commander at a brush fire near El Cajon, and yet another from San Diego, where a fire is threatening to burn through a housing development.

All of the callers are desperate. Most of them are trying to locate either aerial tankers or helicopters, and everybody wants them now. Of all resources, tankers and helicopters are in the shortest supply, creating a mind-boggling logistical problem for the dispatchers, who are trying to determine which fires should have the highest priority, and where to send the equipment. The command center has a fleet of about 20 tankers at its disposal in the state—about one-third of the nation’s total, but this is wholly insufficient whenever fires break out in clusters such as they are now doing.

Throughout the day officials at the Lab are busy, moving men, equipment, and planes back and forth from one fire to another. The system is not without its glitches, however. San Diego city officials have requested air support for a fire which is threatening homes there before 1 pm on Sunday but they do not receive the tankers until 6:30 pm, after 50 homes have burned. They are furious.

“We had aerial tankers dumping retardants on the fire in El Cajon,” one of them fumed, “when we were only a few minutes away by air, and the threat to property damage there was much less.”

“San Diego is making it sound like we were protecting chipmunks and brush and letting the city burn,” says CDF chief Michael Harris. “Not true. The problem was that they did not follow the normal process for placing an order.”

“Our dispatcher believed it was an inquiry of availability,” Harris adds. “They did not make a formal request for air tankers.

“At 4:40 when we did receive a request from San Diego city officials an order number was assigned and we responded in three minutes.”

Monday afternoon turns into a nightmare at the command center. At 1:15 pm a brush fire starts in San Luis Obispo County at a Salinas River bridge crossing on Las Pilitas Road just below Santa Margarita Lake. When the first County trucks arrive at the fire it has already burned about five acres and is making a sustained run through heavy brush. The initial attack strategy is to contain a small spot fire one-fourth acre in size which is on the south, or San Luis Obispo, side of the road. This is accomplished, but the main body of flame is moving too fast and is too dangerous for a direct attack so the firefighters pull back to a staging area and call for additional support. They then commit the meager resources on hand to protection of houses and other structures along the road. 

Quickly , engines, bulldozers, and a hotshot crew are dispatched from Riverside. Within a few hours the fire has become a massive front of searing flames, the huge head of smoke visible for more than 100 miles. The front burns in a southeasterly direction towards Santa Margarita Lake and up into Alamo Canyon, which is directly north of the reservoir. A dozer line is hastily constructed in an attempt to cut the fire off from the body of water, but this is abandoned when the fire jumps the line near Parkhill Road. By 10 pm, 6,000 acres have been blackened.110 

TWO HOURS LATER, at 3:15 pm, an arson-caused fire breaks out in Wheeler Gorge, about 15 miles northwest of Ojai. It is two acres in size when the first Forest Service supervisor responds to the scene and is burning rapidly, splitting into two flaming heads, one running up a steep slope towards Wheeler Gorge Campground; the other downcanyon towards Wheeler Hot Springs. He watches, helplessly, until the first engines arrive at the fire scene 15 minutes later. By the time the first pumper is there, the fire has increased to 30 acres in size and has spotted across Highway 33. 

The Forest Service has been the victim of an austere fire budget, equal only to what was provided four years ago. The first strike engine, normally about 2 minutes away, is unavailable, as are the second and third backup units, all due to economics. 

“Had the Wheeler Gorge Station been manned,” Ojai District Ranger David Haney notes later in his summary report on the Wheeler Fire, “it is possible that this fire would have been picked up with initial attack forces. As it was, it is likely that the fire had outgrown the capabilities of available initial attack forces prior to their arrival.”

The Gorge, which lies in a deep canyon on the western edge of the Topatopa Mountains, is surrounded by some of the most rugged country in Southern California. The broken, steep, and extremely rocky slopes are filled with brush that hasn’t burned in more than 40 years, making traditional firefighting methods impossible. Bulldozers are difficult to use and much of the hundred miles of line which are cut is done by hand. Many of the personnel are on 16-20 hour shifts; most of them work the entire two week period that the fire takes to control without any days off.

“Fire behavior was erratic, awesome, and extreme,” says Haney. “Weather conditions were changing frequently. The weather forecasts were inaccurate. Temperatures during daylight hours often exceeded 100 degrees and relative humidities dropped below 10%....The Wheeler incident burned under an adverse weather model for the majority of the incident. This impaired and reduced the ability of firefighters to use direct attack methods.”

For the next three days severe downcanyon winds push the fire relentlessly on two fronts, one towards Matilija Canyon on the west side of Highway 33, the other toward Ojai and Meiner’s Oaks on the east side of the road.

IN ORANGE COUNTY, when a fire breaks out near Camp Pendelton Marine Base and they request additional air tankers and engine strike teams, officials at the Riverside Fire Lab move their headquarters into what they call the “War Room.” Here, far from the intense heat, roaring flames, and chaotic fire lines, representatives from various local, state, and federal fire agencies begin to make gut-wrenching decisions about which of these fires will receive the limited number of air tankers, and how men and equipment will be divided for the ground attack.

At two-hour intervals these officials share information and expertise, and set priorities as to which demands for resources are the most critical. A difficult decision is made at 4 pm when a new fire erupts, stretching thin resources even thinner. “Under the organization’s policy,” says CDF spokesman Carl Stadick, “a new fire has precedence....therefore we diverted three air tankers to the smaller new one. The game plan is to get it out as quickly as you can.” When out, the tankers are once again reshifted. 

When San Diego officials call in again and ask for more air support, the request is studied carefully. Because a brush fire near the Riverside Freeway in Orange County poses the least threat to structures, the requested support is diverted from there to San Diego.111 

On Tuesday, when a fire starts in Idaho, and threatens to siphon off some of the vital air support, tensions become extremely taut. By Wednesday, seven major wildfires are raging throughout Southern California. In the War Room they receive a report from Weather Forecaster Ronald Hamilton. He estimates that temperatures will remain in the 100s throughout the Fourth of July weekend and that the santa ana winds will continue to plague them. 

“This weekend is going to be a bummer,” says Michael Harris.

BY WEDNESDAY MORNING the Wheeler Fire has become a 26,300 acre runaway. Beginning at about 8 pm Tuesday night and continuing through 4 am Wednesday morning, firefighters stand side by side fighting the flames with an intensity almost as great as that of the powerful fire. Moving from house to house, the town becomes a combat zone, the flames at one point descending to within a mile of Ojai Avenue, the picturesque main street of this quaint tourist town. Ironically, the firemen battle to save structures such as The Flaming Duck and The Firebird restaurants.

“We must have had 40 to 50 engines out there hopscotching around,” says Pat Kidder, who is from the Bureau of Land Management. “I’ve seen several fire units stand toe-to-toe with 120-foot flames and save a wood A-frame home up there.”

At Thatcher School, an exclusive prep school east of Ojai, firefighters prepare to make a last ditch stand. “One hay barn above the school was already destroyed as flames raced up out of a drainage,” notes County fireman Keith Cullom, who is busily recording the fire on film. “For 20 minutes, buildings on the property were blasted by showering embers and blazing brush and trees. First one roof, then another showed fire as the embers landed. Firefighters lining the roadways through the complex moved in to save the buildings, throwing up ladders and carrying axes and hose-lines to the roofs.”

As soon as a new fire erupts on one of the roofs, it is extinguished, then another, and another, and another, until all the structures are finally safe. At dawn Wednesday morning, as residents awake to survey the damage, fearing the worst, they discover that a miracle has been performed by the firemen—though 11 structures have been partially burned, no Ojai home has sustained major structural damage. 

That morning firefighters proudly announce that “the battle for Ojai is over.” The 2,500 evacuees who begin to stream back into town see banners hanging from numerous houses and businesses thanking the firefighters who risked their lives to save the town. Smoke and ash still hang in the air, and long convoys of equipment from as far away as Arizona and Idaho roll in and out of the city.

Diane Lewis is one of the survivors. The previous night she had been ready to flee, packing several cars full of her family’s belongings. For most of the evening the fire had remained an ominous glow lurking over a steep ridge behind her house. Much of the time she didn’t know what to think. “They told us it was under control and an hour and a half later told us to get ready to evacuate,” she remembers. 

She stands in her partly burned yard, in wonder that her house is still standing. “It looked like God planted Hell on this hillside,” she declares. “That thing that’s melted into the ground was a jacuzzi.” She and her husband have a vacation planned to take place in about three weeks. “It looks like we’re going to go a little sooner than we expected,” she says, adding a bit of humor to what is otherwise a depressing morning.112 

A few blocks to the west, Bern and Don Kirby also had prepared to leave on Tuesday night, if necessary. When the flames tore into the middle-class neighborhood from three sides they fled just before the fire reached them, certain their home was a death trap. 

They return home at 4 am, sure they will find nothing but charred ruins, but to their surprise the house is still standing, though fire has burned beneath and around a wooden catamaran which sits next to it. A fireman stands near their pool, still spraying the area with water. “There was fire coming this way and fire coming that way and it was the most intense experience of my life,” he tells Kirby.

Next door, Colin McElroy bursts into a happy smile when he discovers his house is still there, looking up at two towering palms that have ignited like torches. Nearby, he spies the remains of a cement foundation that he hadn’t known existed. The thousand-degree heat has turned the shrubbery to dust and uncovered the stone remnants of what once were a house and a series of rock-lined paths and gardens that have lain in obscurity for several decades. They are all that was left from another Wheeler Fire, this one in 1948.

As the fire turns away from downtown Ojai, spurred by the change in wind direction, concern shifts to residents 20 miles away in Santa Barbara County. A major blowup occurs in Matilija Canyon, causing the fire to slop over into the Santa Ynez watershed above Jameson Reservoir, and across the Santa Ynez Mountains near Divide Peak, endangering the town of Carpinteria. In one six-hour period at midday on Wednesday the fire envelops an additional 20,000 acres in this area and advances 5.5 miles, a rate of spread equal to the 1932 Matilija Fire which burned 219,000 acres in the same area.

As the evening of July 3 approaches, Chuck Mills, who has become co-Incident Commander along with Bill Bowman, faces a critical situation. Though the fire has only been burning for a little more than two days, it has expanded to 45,000 acres in size and command problems are developing faster than they can be handled. The Wheeler Fire has become the largest wildland fire ever to be managed under one team. 

Fire behavior is extremely erratic. Temperatures are blistering, humidity is below 10 per cent, and the fire burns fiercely through steep, broken terrain. These factors, when combined, are becoming so overwhelming that the operations team can no longer function effectively under the traditional incident command methodology.

“Fire tactics were commanding all of the team’s time,” Ojai District Ranger David Haney reports, “Yet the spread of the fire into the wildland/urban interfaces in the vicinities of Ojai, Meiners Oaks, and Matilija dictated the need for contingency planning, evacuation planning, identifying coordination with other agencies and incorporation of forest land management plan direction into the escaped fire situation analysis.”

“The incident commanders recognized this situation. In their minds, long term strategic and contingency planning ranked in importance with short range tactical planning. Yet the magnitude of the immediate fire situation has prevented the Command Team from separating itself from the incident for a long enough time to undertake this critical task.”

Zoning the fire into several smaller operations isn’t feasible because critical hot spots in the Matilija area caused by the blowup demand a focused attention. Also, because many regional teams 113 

are committed on other fires in Southern California, there isn’t enough personnel to divide the fire command structure. 

But the unified command structure isn’t functional either, due to the large number of local and state government agencies involved. Because the fire is moving so rapidly, this would result in a continual change in key personnel from one command responsibility to another.

In a typical fire, the Operations Officer, who is directly under Incident Commander, would be responsible for the development of an Escaped Fire Situation Analysis, the document used by the IC to make tactical decisions. 

Normally, this analysis includes 2-to-4 alternatives based on a series of assumptions regarding such factors as weather, fuel, topography, available fire attack strategies, and resources on hand, as well as an estimation of both short and long term potentials. But because of the complex and rapidly changing nature of the Wheeler Fire, there is almost no ability to do any long range planning.

To accomplish long range planning needs, a separate command structure is created under the command of Assistant County Fire Chief Don Perry, its to develop several alternative long term strategies—24 and 48 hours into the future.

A specially designed trailer is made available to Perry and the three officers assigned to him. Quickly they begin to pour over maps showing past burn histories, to assess potential fire behavior, and to focus on identification of urban threats, resource and coordination needs, as well as sensitive resource considerations which must be taken into account.

Incident objectives are clarified. Protection of the wildland/urban interface, public safety, the Santa Ynez watershed, and the Sespe-Frazier Wilderness/Sespe Condor Sanctuary become the primary objectives. 

Numerous contacts are made with individuals familiar with the fire area, including district rangers, fire management officers, and fuel technicians. The Los Padres National Forest Land Management Plan is consulted, along with other environmental documents, aerial photos, and escaped fire situation analyses which have been made in prior years.

One large map composed of eighteen smaller 1:24,000 scale topographical maps is fastened to a wall and covered with clear acetate. Grease pencils and alcohol-based pens are used to update and correct fire information.

Five scenarios are developed and laid out on the map. Plan A is based on a fire of 53,000 acres; Plan B for one of 65,000 acres; Plan C for 90,000 acres; and Plans D and E for 122,000 and 165,000 acres respectively. Assessments are made as to what resources will be needed to deal with each of the scenarios. Flip charts are then put together which identify critical resource needs, coordination information, estimations of the probability of success, and the pros and cons associated with each alternative. All of this is then presented to the Incident Command Team and to line officers for review and implementation. 

Due to the use of this innovative strategy, and the consequent ability to reduce duplication of staff, support personnel, and equipment, suppression costs are reduced by 30 per cent, a savings of more than $3 million dollars.114 

ON THE FOURTH OF JULY, an ominous red glow appears over the top of the Santa Ynez Mountains. The fire continues to spread rapidly, and resources for Plan D—a fire of 120,000+ acres—are mobilized. Twenty-five strike teams with a total of 125 engines are ordered to Carpinteria to protect the coastal communities. By midday, the parking lot at Carpinteria High School, the staging area, is jammed with equipment and hundreds of firefighters from as far away as Sacramento.

Above Cate School, near Casitas Pass Road, about 100 persons have already been evacuated early that morning. Gary Eckrosh is extremely upset when, at 3:30 am, firemen knock at the door of his Gobernador Canyon home and suggest that he leave. “I was invited to a lovely barbecue,” he tells News-Press reporter Paul Yarbrough. “I never dreamed the barbecue was coming to my house.

“I’m angry, I’m pissed. They say it was arson. I wish that sucker was here right now so I could have five minutes with him. Everything I have is up here and threatened because of someone’s insanity.”

At dawn, firefighters work frantically in the Santa Ynez Mountains with hand tools, while bulldozers clear a break near the crest of 5,000 foot Noon Peak, to keep the fire from cresting over to the coast side of the mountains when the heat and santa ana winds pick up. 

Coastal fog has made life a bit easier for all those involved. “We’re in kind of a holding pattern,” says Carpinteria Fire Marshall Gerald Mann. “I’m afraid we’ll have another bad day,” worries Forest Service Public Information Officer Chuck Shipp. “The fire has already burned 58,000 acres and we don’t expect to corral it until it’s burned 125,000 acres.”

The shift in weather is both good and bad news. Though the fire burns much more slowly when the weather is foggy, the six aerial tankers sitting at the Goleta airport will be grounded until the overcast lifts because of the numerous power lines in the fire zone which make low flights a very treacherous proposition. 

Best news of all comes in the afternoon when the cool weather holds and the wind does not pick up. Carpinteria is completely out of danger though the labor pool is stretched dangerously thin. To move supplies to the back country where they will be needed now, fire officials announce that they will pay $7 per hour and up to 35 cents per mile to anyone who will help.

AT FIRST, PROGRESS ON the Pilitas Fire is just as unproductive. Statistics there provide a capsule summary of what firefighters face throughout Southern California: On July 2, temperature 100 degrees, acres burned 12,000; July 3, temperature 102 degrees, acres burned 14,000; July 4, temperature 107 degrees, acres burned 25,000; July 5, temperature 87 degrees, acres burned 38,000; July 7, temperature 104 degrees, acres burned 54,000; July 9, temperature 90 degrees, acres burned 70,000. On July 15, when the fire is finally fire controlled at 74,604 acres, it has taken 1,946 men and 94 miles of containment lines to do it at a suppression cost of $1,160,000.

The worst day of the fire is on Monday, July 8, when the fire hurdles containment lines, crosses over the top of the Santa Lucia Mountains, the long, thin range directly behind San Luis Obispo, and begins to storm its way down towards the town center. As hundreds of people flee, and Highway 101 is closed to through traffic, several houses burn.

The local emergency radio network is activated and residents are given explicit instructions: Do not travel unless absolutely necessary or use the telephone unless it is an emergency; keep water use to an absolute minimum—leave it for firefighters; and above all, stay out of San Luis Obispo.115 

During the torrid morning hours, with the temperature hovering at 100 degrees, a 30-foot wall of flame is clearly visible from the downtown shopping area, and by noon the blaze is within four miles of the city center. Hundreds of people watch its progress from rooftop vantage points, as well as the progress of City and County firefighters who are busy setting backfires in the hills behind the high school and junior high.

In the afternoon, when the wind begins to turn to the west, this alleviates the danger to the downtown area, though for a short period of time the fire threatens to burn across the freeway just above Monterey Street and onto the Cal Poly campus.

The backfiring continues in the hills above town and on a continuous line along the east side of Highway 101 to the top of Cuesta Grade, and from there north to Santa Margarita and then east along Highway 58. In all, 10,000 acres are torched in the backfiring operation, but in doing so firefighters have been able to establish a line of containment around the most dangerous parts of the fire zone.

AT THE WHEELER FIRE, 2,700 firefighters, some of them now from as far away as Michigan and Arkansas, continue to battle the stubborn fire. Officials are concerned because it threatens not only critical watersheds but extremely sensitive California condor habitat. By Sunday, 81,000 acres have been burned in Santa Barbara and Ventura Counties, along with 19 houses, 37 buildings, 32 vehicles, and $3 million worth of orchards. Suppression costs total $3.2 million and the fire is not even close to being out.

On Monday a critical decision is made to begin to burn out 30,000 acres of dense brush in an attempt to head off and contain the fire, which officials now call the “Sleeping Giant,” because it resists being put out as it slowly lumbers along. The largest of these burns, about 15,000 acres in size, is conducted along the western edge of Highway 33, from Rose Valley to Potrero Seco, a large sliver of land which had been kept from burning in the 1964 Coyote Fire.

Throughout the rest of the week, an area of stubborn resistance continues to persist in several major canyons feeding into the Santa Ynez River, including the Diablo, Pendola, and Juncal drainages. Finally, the danger begins to ease when a tropical storm off Baja California helps lower temperatures into the 70s, causing the fire to quiet down. Containment is announced at 6 pm on July 14, and control at 4 pm on the 15th.

In the 14 days in which it has remained out of control, the Wheeler Fire consumes 118,000 acres at a suppression cost of $9 million in personnel, equipment, and air operations costs.

ON A HOT AND WINDY day in October, 12 separate fires breakout in Ventura County, five of them exceeding 1,000 acres in size. The first of these occurs in Box Canyon, where one man dies while trying to save his home. At 4:38 pm, the Ferndale Fire is ignited by an arsonist, one of a number of intentionally-set fires that have plagued Ventura for months, including the Wheeler Fire in July. 

This fire continues for seven days before control is declared on October 31, 1985, having burned 45,000 acres and necessitating the use of 2,500 firefighters, 60 hand crews, 120 engines, and 24 aircraft to put it out. A $20,000 reward is offered for the arsonist’s capture. 116 

Arson specialists such as Los Padres Forest Service officer Jim Burton devote their full time to solving the case. 

“We were just at the point of following the one person who we strongly suspected of starting these fires,” Burton says, “when he crashed his car and was killed. For some reason, after this, the fires stopped.

“Though we’ll never close the case, and I can never prove it, in my mind, when he was killed, I closed the case.”

Tuesday, July 28, 2015