Lompoc residents Ron Fink and Joe Valencia remember all too well the deadly combination of drought-starved vegetation combined with wild winds on a December day four decades ago.
“Nobody thought just a couple days before Christmas we were going to get another big, huge fire like Honda Canyon,” said Valencia, who was a reserve firefighter for the Santa Barbara County Fire Department at the time of the deadly 1977 fire. “Not as far as acreage but as far as intensity with winds and such.”
As the Thomas Fire continues to burn in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties more than two weeks after igniting, the Vandenberg Fire Department this week will pause to remember the Honda Canyon Fire, which killed four men and burned more than 9,000 acres on the 98,000-acre military installation.
Fink was a member of the Vandenberg Air Force Base Fire Department 40 years ago when the Honda Canyon Fire claimed the lives of four men — Col. Joseph Turner, fire Chief Billy Bell, Assistant Chief Eugene Cooper and fire bulldozer operator Clarence McCauley.
“It was the same set of conditions we have today — extended drought, no rain for several months, it was in December, and then you just had the right set of circumstances. A spark catches the vegetation on fire and then you’re off to the races,” Fink said.
On the morning of Dec. 20, 1977, Fink recalls Bell instructing him to head up Honda Ridge Road to be a spotter.
Fink became emotional as he remembered that day.
“His last words were, ‘Ron, keep me informed,’ so I did,” Fink said, choking up. “As I watched the fire, the wind was just blowing like hell that morning.”
On Tranquillon Peak, wind gusts reportedly were recorded at well above 100 mph that day, with a toppled power pole suspected as the cause of the fire.
“It was blowing down that canyon,” Fink said.
He had warned his bosses the fire would race to the ocean, two miles away, and that’s what happened.
Armed with a portable radio, Fink tried but was repeatedly unable to reach the fire chief for orders.
He later learned flames overran two vehicles — one with the base contingent and the other including Santa Barbara County Battalion Chief Don Perry.
Those in the county vehicle survived the firestorm, but in Bell’s vehicle, the three men left the shelter of the car and fled through 12-foot tall brush to escape.
They were unable to outrun the flames, and Bell, Turner and Cooper were found dead in a gulch nearby.
“Now the chief’s vehicle, keep in mind that the only damage to that vehicle was some sagging plastic on the grill,” Fink said.
McCauley, the dozer operator, was found nearby, badly burned, and Valencia was assigned to ride along in the ambulance.
The emergency vehicle unknowingly descended into the firestorm, before they were able to get the injured man to the base hospital. McCauley died a couple weeks later.
As the fire raged, airmen from other units on base joined the battle despite their lack of firefighting experience, Valencia said.
“It was a hellish nightmare,” Valencia added.
The morning after the fire ignited, Valencia said, he felt a drop hit his head, initially thinking a seagull had flown over, only to realize rain had started falling.
“And it rained and it rained and it rained,” Fink said. “For three weeks steady it rained, and that’s the difference between the (2016) Canyon Fire that lasted for over a week and that fire that lasted for about 23 hours.
“Weather — the same thing that created the problem — took care of it,” Fink added. “That was a tough time.”
Fink said a YouTube video from last year’s Canyon Fire provides a sense of the terrain and conditions firefighters faced “they day we were there” in 1977.
The aftermath of the Honda Canyon Fire led to changes, including creation of the Vandenberg Hotshots in 1978, although budget cuts five years ago trimmed that crew from being a 21-member team.
Bulldozer operators at the base have been trained to battle blazes with the heavy equipment.
Another recommendation after the Honda Canyon Fire was to have more prescribed burns, since there were suggestions that the lack of previous fires made flames more ferocious.
Vandenberg implemented a program to conduct regular vegetation management burns although budgets, resources and air quality concerns have seen that reduced.
“At least at the time, the Air Force didn’t allow it to pass without doing something, and the something they did was to improve the training, equipment and everything else the guys use today to handle this sort of thing, because that was what was missing then,” Fink said.
“We knew how to do airplanes. We knew how to do buildings but we didn’t know how to do brush.”
Valencia wrote a book about the deadly blaze, Beyond Tranquillon Ridge, published in 2004, saying he believed it was important to recount the history and to create a training tool.
“And the third was for myself personally, to see if I could finally get over this incident. And I failed, because you never get over it,” Valencia said. “It always stays with you.”
Base officials hold anniversary ceremonies and said this week’s event will be open only to firefighters and family members.
— Noozhawk North County editor Janene Scully can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.