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Embers Forge Enduring Lessons

October 31, 2003|John N. MacLean | John N. MacLean is the author of the "Fire and Ashes: On the Front Lines of American Wildfire" (Henry Holt, 2003).

It was evening, about 10 p.m., when the wind over a brush-choked canyon in Northern California unexpectedly shifted and began to roar downhill.

A fire had been burning since midday on the upper reaches of the canyon in the Mendocino National Forest, about 90 miles north of Sacramento. The fresh, violent wind picked up embers from the fire and spun them into the depths of the canyon, where the embers transformed into a thunderous torrent of fire, as though a dam had burst.

The sight mesmerized veteran firefighters. Long, fatal minutes passed before they remembered a crew of 24 men stationed in the canyon below. The crew had hunkered down in a ravine to eat supper and had posted no lookouts.

The alarm was raised, but it was late. Fifteen of the men in the lower crew began a race with fire down the canyon while another nine scrambled upward to safety. Other firefighters watched in horror from canyon slopes as the torrent of fire hurtled toward the 15 men and snuffed their headlamps, one after another.

The loss of 15 firefighters in the Rattlesnake Fire, which occurred July 9, 1953, stands unmatched half a century later, at a time when the fires of Southern California are setting their own mark. The two conflagrations, separated by 50 years, have several links. The Rattlesnake Fire sparked a nationwide program to deliberately burn chaparral and reduce the risk of uncontrolled fire. The program was severely curtailed under a series of environmental challenges beginning in the 1970s.

The Rattlesnake Fire also helped inspire rules for safety that remain in force today and have saved firefighter lives.

And the fire provided a lesson about the limits of punishment for arson. Stan Pattan, the son of a prominent Forest Service engineer, confessed to setting the Rattlesnake Fire to get a job on the fire crew. He was taken into custody while working as a cook at the Rattlesnake Fire camp. Pattan served three years of a possible 20-year sentence in San Quentin but escaped murder charges and a more severe jail term because he had not intended to harm anyone. He returned home, where he still works as a wildlife artist and has had no further trouble with the law.

Sadly, it usually takes a catastrophe to teach enduring lessons. In Southern California, the lessons will not emerge until the fires are out, but after that it is likely there will be increased efforts to make housing more resistant to fire and there will be calls for increased, deliberate burning to clear brush.

The spring after the Rattlesnake Fire, two young Forest Service men, dismayed by the loss of life, took drip torches and on their own authority ignited a huge swath of chaparral near the site of the fire. Deliberate burning, they believed, would have prevented the deaths on the Rattlesnake Fire.

The Forest Service, to its credit, didn't discipline them but instead made the burn a model for the region.

"Hopefully, there is some solace in the fact that this tragedy woke up the Forest Service and other firefighting agencies," Dan Chisholm, supervisor of the Mendocino National Forest, said at a 1993 memorial dedication near the fire site. Chisholm said firefighting in chaparral had become much safer because of the Rattlesnake Fire, but his judgment seems sadly over-optimistic today.

The loss of life, though, definitely had a lasting effect. The Forest Service, conscience-struck by a mounting death toll from this and other fires, assembled a task force in 1957 that produced the Ten Standard Fire Orders, the bedrock of firefighter safety today. The number of multiple-fatality fires dropped dramatically after 1957. Only the 1966 Loop Fire in California's Angeles National Forest had double-digit losses until Colorado's 1994 South Canyon Fire, which killed 14 firefighters.

In the wake of the South Canyon Fire, safety became an obsession in the fire world. Fire crews began refusing orders they considered too dangerous. Equipment has been added and upgraded, including such things as better protective clothing and portable weather stations. Federal dollars now send hundreds of volunteer firefighters to wildfire academies.

But fire remains a brutal teacher. The loss of one firefighter and 19 civilians in Southern California underscores the truth that fire ultimately eludes human control. The effects of fatal fires linger like heavy smoke for those who knew and loved those who fell. Hope lies in sifting the ashes to learn a lesson, no matter how imperfectly.

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