Monday, July 16 , 2018, 2:06 pm | Fair 72º


Ron Fink: Two Significant Fires on Vandenberg AFB in a Week; 1977 vs. Now

Smoke from wildfires burning on Vandenberg AFB could be seen all over the Lompoc Valley last week.

Many are comparing the Canyon Fire on the south base to the Honda Fire that occurred almost 40 years ago.

I was part of the firefighting team that worked feverishly to contain that fire; but we had a lot of handicaps.

For those unfamiliar with the south base, the topography consists of canyons that stretch for miles, and the vegetation presents firefighters with some serious challenges. It is very volatile and burns with a great intensity.

U.S. Air Force firefighters who worked and lived on carefully groomed Air Force bases in 1977 were trained and equipped to tackle aircraft and building fires.

They were not trained for wildland firefighting, and didn’t have the right equipment, tactics or strategy to handle the job. That would change after the Honda Fire.

Last week’s Canyon Fire was similar in some respects to the 1977 fire; the big difference was weather, training and resources.

And this time it took several days, not a few hours, to burn about the same acreage.

The night preceding Dec. 21, 1977, was dominated by an incoming storm. At about 7:30 a.m., crews responded to a report of a brush fire in one of those small canyons leading into Honda Canyon.

The winds were registered at 99 mph, the limit of the anemometer, on Tranquillion Peak; the crew reported by radio that the fire was small, but hard to get at.

Within less than two hours, the fire would grow dramatically. The brush had been dried by several years of drought, and had not burned in several decades, just like today.

I was assigned to a ridge top by Fire Chief Billy Bell with orders to report the progress of the fire to him at regular intervals.

I reported that the fire was crossing a small creek and warned that it would move fast; minutes later, it took off like a dragster racing two and a half miles down Honda Canyon faster than I could turn my head.

Soon, because of lost radio communication, we realized that we had lost Chief Bell, Assistant Chief Gene Cooper, Lt. Col. Joe Turner, the base commander, and bulldozer operator Clarence McCauley.

That day it wasn’t the efforts of the firefighting forces that tamed this beast; it was the same thing that caused it, the weather. On Dec. 22 it began raining and didn’t quit until late March of 1978; that’s how the fire got extinguished.

Military commanders, not wanting a repeat of this incident, spent large sums of money to enlist the aid of the U.S. Forest Service, Cal Fire, the California State fire academy, Allan Hancock College and Santa Barbara County fire departments to develop training programs and strategic plans to prepare for the next catastrophe.

Things are a lot different today.

As a tribute to the Honda tragedy, those plans, although updated and improved over the years, remain in effect today and have become routine.

Vandenberg’s firefighters receive top notch wildland fire training, are certified to national standards, respond to statewide fire requests, and participate at every level of command on firefighting teams.

Their equipment is on par with their civilian counterparts and the Vandenberg Hot Shots are well respected when they join other crews.

Last week’s fire began much like the 1977 fire, but in a different canyon.

This fire didn’t have strong winds to worry about, but after several years of drought, the vegetation was ready to burn.  This fire claimed another firefighter, who was on his way to provide assistance and was killed when the tanker he was in crashed a little east of Lompoc.

But it wasn’t over. On Sept. 22, as crews finally gained the upper hand on the Canyon Fire, a new fire, the Washington Fire, raced through the more populated North base areas.

Fortunately, there was already a large firefighting force in place at the nearby fire camp, and they were able to quickly knock down the fire.

From the standpoint of resources, today's Vandenberg Fire team has sophisticated communications with outside agencies; something that didn’t exist in 1977, and a fully equipped fire command post with communication and mapping capabilities, which also didn’t exist in 1977.

The wind wasn’t as serious a concern in the Canyon Fire, but low humidity’s and warm temperature’s combined with the steep terrain and a heavy vegetation load kept this fire moving in all directions.

The wind was a serious concern at the Washington Fire.

There were swarms of large and small aircraft and numerous helicopters attacking both fires; this was a tool that couldn’t be used in 1977 because of the wind.

The Canyon Fire took longer to control and ultimately extinguish, but it wasn’t because of poor training or lack of equipment. This time, as in the Honda Fire, the weather dictated what would happen when a heavy marine layer provided much needed moist air.

Some 1,100 firefighters from over 50 agencies battled both wildland fires. Within the Air Force firefighting community, fires of this magnitude rarely occur on established bases; and two significant fires in a week never happen unless they are in a combat zone.

But when they do happen at Vandenberg, the base commander is fortunate to have a well-trained and motivated fire department that can rise to the challenge.

Well done team Vandenberg and all the cooperating agencies.

— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry and has been active with Lompoc municipal government commissions and committee since 1992, including 12 years on the Lompoc Planning Commission. He is also a voting member of the Santa Barbara County Taxpayers Association. Contact him at [email protected]. Click here to read previous columns. The opinions expressed are his own.

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