Decker Canyon Fire - August 8, 1959
Incident: Falls Fire Wildfire
Decker Fire Anniversary
August 8th represents the 54th anniversary of the Decker Fire of 1959 that occurred on the Trabuco Ranger District of the Cleveland National Forest. This fire was a fatality fire that claimed the lives of six firefighters who were working in some of the same areas impacted by the 2013 Falls Fire.
Some of the CDF and Forest Service personnel who were involved with the Gough Fire three weeks earlier were assigned to the Decker Fire. Several of these men were members of the El Cariso “Hotshot” Crew and had witnessed the unusual wind activity and subsequent violent fire behavior on the Gough Fire. This activity, now known as the “Elsinore Effect”, is the dramatic reversal of wind caused by the local topography and coastal influence.
On August 8th, the Decker Fire was moving downslope below Highway 74, while firefighters were performing firing operations from the highway. The “Elsinore Effect” became a tragic factor when the sudden release of heat in the flat set up a large scale eddy. The eddy moved upslope with winds up to 125 miles per hour, almost instantaneously pushing the fire back onto the firefighters. Most of the men were able to run down the road to safety into the area that had previously burned. District Ranger Ben Slater—and the men with him who were previously firing near the upper part of the old Gough burn—were caught without protection or a planned escape route, and suffered critical burns as they ran downhill. District Ranger Ben Slater and Tanker Crew Foreman, Andrew Brooks, died on August 10, 1959. Steven W. Johnson passed away on August 15th, while Boyd M. Edwards and Nelson D. Harlan passed on Sunday, August 16th.
One hour before the fire storm that took the lives of the Forest Service employees named above, a similar but smaller fire storm trapped two CDF trucks as they were coming through the fire area one mile below the origin. This resulted in four firefighters being burned, one critically and three seriously; all were hospitalized. One of these men, CDF firefighter John Guthrie, died six weeks later as a result of his injuries.
The following items that are now standard practices in our firefighting operations were identified as recommendations in the Decker Fire Investigation Report.
ü Escape routes cannot be left out in planning tactics and their importance cannot be denied
ü Fire resistant clothing and tools (PPE) are mandatory
ü Specialized burn facilities are crucial in the treatment of extensive burns, and should be identified in advance
ü Interagency response to fire in California using radio inter-operability is now an established practice
In 1960, six canyons near the Decker Fire fatalities location were named after the fallen firefighters. The overarching canyon was named “Slater Canyon” in honor of the District Ranger who perished while fighting to protect his Ranger District.
In 2011, the California Wildland Firefighter Memorial (CWFM) was completed. It is located at the corner of Highway 74 (Ortega Highway) and South Main Divide Road. The completion of this project was spearheaded by Carlo Guthrie, widow of John Guthrie (Decker Fire). The Forest Service has partnered with CAL FIRE, Orange County Fire Authority, and the CWFM board to establish this memorial site, dedicated to all firefighters who have lost their lives fighting wildland fires in California.