Tracking land policy in the Golden State.

From the Big Blowup to Yarnell Hill: A Cautionary History of Wildland Fire

Fighting the 1933 Griffith Park Fire
| Photo: Courtesy of the USC Libraries, Los Angeles Examiner Collection

The fire started small. Someone deliberately ignited a pile of trash built up at the base of an oak tree in Griffith Park, a 4,300-acre municipal wildland draped across the Hollywood Hills. Within minutes, it had spread to the tinder-dry chaparral, running up what later was called Death Hill before whipping in and around Mineral Wells and Dam canyons. By sundown, the Los Angeles County Fire Department had extinguished the 47-acre blaze, and for the next couple of days its crews mopped up hot spots.

For all its seeming insignificance, the Oct 3, 1933 fire was in fact historic -- and tragic. When supervisors of a large contingent of welfare-project workers in the park spotted the first ominous curl of smoke, they threatened and cajoled their untrained men into attacking the fast-moving blaze with shovels, rakes, and their bare hands. Said a survivor: "It was just a lark to us. It didn't look dangerous then. We laughed about it and started down, to bat the fire out in a hurry."

Moments later, with a radical shift in the wind's direction and an escalation in its speed, the fire raced toward the hapless men. "You could tell the progress of the fire by the screams," one observer remembered. "The flames would catch a man and his screams would reach an awful pitch. Then there would be an awful silence. Then you would hear somebody scream and then it would be silent again. It was all over inside of seven minutes."

The official tally was that 29 died, though some contemporary accounts put the toll as high as 58. Whatever their number, Griffith Park remains one of the nation's most deadly wildland fires.

Story Continues Below
Support KCET

Its horrific status resurfaced in the wake of yet another major loss of life as a result of the Yarnell Hill fire near Prescott, Arizona. On Sunday, June 30, an erratic, wind-driven wall of flame overran nineteen members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew.

There is nothing that one can say that will lessen the grief of their many loved ones, their network of friends and colleagues. Nothing will fill the void, an aching emptiness that will stretch across time.

Yet these painful memories may also be the catalyst for a major reconsideration of how we decide to fight fires in an era of population growth and climate change in the American west. Some of these recalibrations might emerge as a result of an intense investigation into the meteorological conditions, fire behavior, on-the-ground leadership, communications, and a host of other variables that existed on that fatal Sunday.

This analysis, Carrie Dennett, an Arizona State Forestry Division fire-prevention officer, told the Arizona Republic, "will be designed so we can learn from this and teach up-and-coming firefighters, if there are any lessons that can be learned."

Jack Ward Thomas is among those hoping Yarnell Hill will force the issue on whether, and under what conditions, to engage with runaway fires. "I have been having nightmares -- again -- over the loss of the hotshot crew in Arizona," the former Forest Service chief wrote me. "I was at Storm King in 1994 when the 14 bodies were still in place. What I saw, heard, and felt still haunts my dreams. My God! Is it not time to face the realities -- the worsening realities -- and deal with the situation comprehensively?"

The pressing need for comprehensiveness begins with past behavior, for as Thomas implies we have ignored similar warnings after other heart-rending traumas.

This pattern of forgetfulness began in 1910 with the Big Blowup, a series of separate fires in mountainous Idaho and Washington that were united by gale-force winds into a howling holocaust; it incinerated three million acres and killed 78 firefighters. We have been dealing with the aftershocks of that disaster ever since.

The Forest Service, then in its infancy, decided that it must accelerate the training of its firefighters, adopt new tools on the ground and in the air, and ramp up its efforts to suppress any such blaze. By the 1930s it had announced the so-called 10 A.M. Rule that called for all fires, regardless of context or condition, to be extinguished the morning after they had been spotted. Although more honored in the breach, the promulgation inculcated an aggressive culture of firefighting and led to the swift adoption of innovative technologies to stamp out all subsequent outbursts.

The major proponent of this strategy, Ferdinand Silcox, then chief of the agency, had fought the 1910 fires in Montana and at the time had been skeptical of the ability of human resources to do the job in extreme situations: "It is absolutely impossible to put out such fires as are raging in the mountains now without the aid of rain," he told a reporter. "The entire northwest is as dry as tinder and the draft from the fires carries embers and burning branches miles away into the woods."

Twenty years later Silcox reached a different conclusion -- given enough men and material even monster conflagrations should be attacked at all costs.

That conviction was woven into the determination to take on the Mann Gulch fire of 1949. Fifteen smokejumpers parachuted near a wind-whipped inferno in the mountains above Helena, Montana, where they joined a ranger who had hiked in to battle the rapidly moving blaze. Trapped near a ridgeline, thirteen died. In its post-fire investigation, the Forest Service exonerated the fire boss's decision to jump in the first place and his management decisions during the increasingly ferocious and unpredictable burn.

"I really think that the fire we saw when we flew over there was a typical smokejumper fire," a survivor confirmed. "And if they didn't jump on that fire they wouldn't have jumped on half the fires they jumped on that year. So I don't think it was a mistake to jump. After we got on the ground I think it was a freak of nature that caused the wind to do what it did and to pick those coals up and drop them in the canyon below us." Because smokejumping had been invented, the agency needed to use this tool notwithstanding any such "freak of nature."

Unfortunately, those freakish moments have piled up. Between 1949 and 2012, burnovers have killed an estimated 221 of the 769 wildland firefighters who have died on the job.

The 1950s and '60s were especially harrowing on the California national forests. In 1953, fifteen died in a burnover on the Mendocino NF; the next year, three more were lost on the Tahoe NF and then in 1956 another eleven fell on the Cleveland NF. Ten years later, a dozen firefighters were killed on the Angeles NF, also the site of a 1968 incident in which four perished.

Following the 1994 fire season, in which 14 firefighters were killed in the South Canyon fire on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs, Colorado, the Forest Service and other federal and state agencies embraced a more rigorous safety-first strategy, hoping to limit the number of fatalities.

This year's tragedy in Arizona suggests that we may not have fully absorbed this painful, century-long history. The problem does not appear to be one of policy but of memory. We don't seem to know how to recall this deadly past, to keep it front and center, so as to abide by the rules and regulations already in place.

The public moreover must deliberately integrate these deaths into our ongoing education about fire's essential place in the landscape, whether grassland, chaparral, or alpine. They must also be a required discussion item before every zoning commission or city council vote to permit yet another subdivision in the wildland-urban interface. For make no mistake, we are undeniably complicit in this mounting toll -- we sent these firefighters out to do the work that led to their demise even as we have contributed to the increased frequency and intensity of the fires they have battled on our behalf. They die where we live.

To insure that their numbers do not grow, perhaps this time we'll remember what happened during the Big Blowup and in Griffith Park, at Mann Gulch, South Canyon, and now Yarnell Hill. Perhaps this time we won't forget what we have always known.


An Ancient Partnership Put in Danger


Islands In The Sky: Tales From The Pacific Crest Trail

About the Author

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, and author of numerous books, including "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy"
RSS icon

Add Your Response