On March 2 a movie aficionado extravaganza will begin in Santa Barbara. From March 2-12, 120 feature films and 60 short films representing 54 countries will be shown at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
One of those films is sure to provoke serious interest from those interested in what happened locally during the Cold War and how it impacted the lives of military and civilian personnel working for the U.S. Air Force.
You’ll recall that during this time there were also a couple of “hot wars” fought in Korea and Vietnam. To maintain a state of readiness the U.S. military operated bases and outposts around the world, even as funds were prioritized to fund those wars. One of those bases was at nearby Vandenberg Space Force Base.
Unlike most Air Force installations at the time, Vandenberg didn’t have and still doesn’t have any aircraft assigned. The military and civilian personnel at this 98,000-acre base were charged with launching space craft and testing ballistic missiles.
Numerous launch sites were in semi-remote areas on the base to prevent a mishap on one, such as an explosion or propellant leak from impacting the others or communities off the base.
The Vandenberg land mass consists of hills and valleys chocked full of brush and trees on the south base and grass covered hillsides on the north base. At the time there were no training programs or management strategies for wildland fires on military bases; the fire department of the day was trained and equipped for aircraft and structural firefighting.
Largely because of the hot wars that drained military budgets, their rolling stock was generally over 20 years old and unsuited for wildland firefighting.
Military commanders were trained to “fly and fight,” meaning air operations were the primary mission of the Air Force. These same commanders were expected to “take charge” of any threat to their bases, even if they had no experience or training to deal with the problem at hand.
In late December 1977, during hurricane-force winds, a fire occurred in steep, brush-filled Honda Canyon on south base. The vegetation had been baking in drought conditions for several years.
Because of the terrain and lack of proper equipment, the initial fire department response was unable to contain the fire. Within a short period, the fire raced down Honda Canyon at hurricane speeds to the seacoast; firefighters and missile launch sites were overrun as it eventually burned more than 9,000 acres.
“Firestorm ’77: The True Story of the Honda Canyon Fire” will be screened twice at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The first is scheduled for 8:20 a.m. Wednesday, March 9, and the second at 2:20 p.m. Friday, March 11; both at the Metropolitan Metro 4 Theatre, 618 State St., Santa Barbara.
“Firestorm ’77” is dedicated to eyewitness accounts chronicling what happened that day. According to their Facebook page, the film is a “story of a wind-driven wildfire on a California Air Force base that transformed into a power struggle between military command and civilian firefighters resulting in tragic loss of life and, for survivors, a lifetime of recurring trauma.”
This is not a reenactment of the events of that fire; instead, it is a firsthand account by people who were there that day. Thousands of men and women were killed or seriously injured in the cold war during war games and training exercises.
This was no “game,” four people, Base Cmdr. Col. Joseph Turner, Vandenberg Fire Chief Billy Bell, Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Cooper, and base Heavy Equipment Operator Clarence McCauley were all killed, and 65 others were injured as the fire raced towards the ocean.
If you miss seeing this film, you are missing an opportunity to witness what the Cold War was like for the airmen and civilian employees at Vandenberg Space Force Base in December 1977.
— Ron Fink, a Lompoc resident since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry. He has been following Lompoc politics since 1992, and after serving for 23 years appointed to various Lompoc commissions, retired from public service. The opinions expressed are his own.