Next week marks the 40-year anniversary of a devastating fire at Vandenberg that killed four and injured 65 people in December 1977.
California had been baking in the sun all summer and autumn of that year. In an all-too-typical cycle, drought conditions had existed for five years and all it took was a spark in dry brush to create a catastrophic fire.
Strong, gusty winds had developed on Dec. 19 throughout California. Due to these extreme winds a power line snapped about 7 a.m. on Dec. 20, igniting a brush fire on the southern portion of Vandenberg AFB — and the Honda Canyon Fire was born.
The area is incredibly stunning in its diversity. Honda Canyon is the largest and most significant canyon on Vandenberg. It is a steep, winding, brush-filled habitat for wildlife that can still get a person lost and in trouble even today.
Conditions faced by firefighters were daunting. Hurricane-force winds were gusting at more than 100 mph on Tranquillion Peak. These conditions had never been experienced by base firefighters and would have a defining impact on fire-suppression efforts.
Mutual aid in the form of 35 engines from Santa Barbara, Ventura and Los Angeles counties, a contingent of U.S. Navy Seabees from Port Hueneme, an engine from Lompoc and numerous U.S. Forest Service resources fought to contain the flames. After nearly 24 hours of having their tactics dictated by nature, aid came in the form of heavy rain, allowing for containment and the final extinguishing of the fire.
The relief came, but not before Base Commander Col. Joseph Turner, Vandenberg Fire Chief Billy Bell, Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Cooper and base heavy-equipment operator Clarence McCauley were tragically trapped and killed in the preliminary stages of the fire. Sixty-five others were injured.
Can it happen again? It has, it did, and it will again. In September 2016 the Canyon Fire occurred in the same area of the base, Honda Canyon. Weather conditions and fire-fighting strategies during this fire were substantially different from those in 1977.
Wind was a factor, but in 1977 it started raining hard just 23 hours after the fire started. In 2016 it was hot and dry, and this created substantially different problems for fire forces during the week-long fire fight.
In 1978 the Vandenberg Hot Shots, a specialized team of firefighters who rely on hand tools to create fire breaks, were organized and trained. In 2012 they were disbanded when Congress severely cut military budgets. This was a significant loss to the Vandenberg Fire Department.
During their service they were highly respected in the wildland fire-fighting community. Many went on to become respected fire service managers in several military and civilian fire departments around the state and nation.
In 1977 base fire fighters weren’t trained or equipped to handle these types of fires. In 2016 they were very well-trained and equally well-equipped to handle the situation. More than 1,000 firefighters from all over the region responded and set up camp on the base.
One firefighter was killed in a vehicle accident on route to the fire, and others were injured.
We don’t know when the next large fire will occur, but history tends to repeat itself when the vegetation grows back, ages, dries out and then a loose spark sets it ablaze.
The last couple of weeks have clearly demonstrated how devil winds, combined with fire, can devastate hundreds of square miles in just a few days.