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Incident Name: Decker Fire
Date: 8/8/59
Personnel:  6 lives lost 
Age:
Agency/Organization: US Forest Service
Position: El Cariso Hotshots, El Cariso Engine, CDF firefighter

Summary:

Nelson Harlan
Steven Johnson
Boyd Edwards
(above from El Cariso HS & El Cariso Engine)
Andrew Brooks (Foreman at the San Juan Station)
Ben Slater, District Ranger, CNF
John Guthrie, CDF firefighter, died September 14, 1959

The Decker Fire started on the Ortega Highway, three miles west of Lake Elsinore Village, southeast of Los Angeles, California around l800 hours on August 8, 1959. It was the result of an automobile accident which killed one person and critically burned another. The USFS units from El Cariso Station (three miles up the Ortega Highway) arrived first and began initial attack on the uphill side of the fire. CDF units arrived shortly after, beginning their attack on the lower portion of the fire. This fire occurred in 1959, well before fire-resistant clothing and fire shelters were mandatory. None of the firefighters involved in this accident were equipped with either fire-resistant clothing or fire shelters. The tragedy occurred shortly after sundown, at the time of the breakdown in downslope winds. Several large fire whirls developed, creating exceedingly hot and fast fire runs towards the highway where crews were working. Some firefighters were able to escape down the highway unharmed, dozens of others were burned, including 7 with severe injuries. Eventually 6 people lost their lives.

The last one to die more than a month later on September 14, 1959 at the Redlands Hospital was John Guthrie. He was burned over more than 85% of his body.

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Maps

Accident Site (approximate)

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Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

  • Decker Fire Investigation Report
  • Doug Campbell, BEHAVE and CPS Risk Mitigation Model:
    • Risk Mitigation Model Risk Mitigation Model
  • FC180: The "Elsinore Effect" is a unique weather pattern that occurs in the summer months. The cool coastal air flows downslope in the afternoon in the Santa Ana Mountains respoding to a heat low that normally forms on a summer day in the Perris-Hemet interior valley.

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Wildlandfire.com Links:

Search wildlandfire.com on terms Decker Fire. There are lots of references through the years.

They said it: 3/13/2010 and scroll up, nice comments about dad from TS, 10/18/20083/7/2004 , scroll down to Loop on 3/5/2004. There are others.

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Media Articles and Reports.

Decker Canyon Fire killed six firefighters in August 1959
From The North County Times: Link to Online Article
Saturday, August 11, 2001
JOHN HUNNEMAN, Staff Writer

ORTEGA HIGHWAY ---- The canyons that bear the names of the six dead firefighters aren't marked any more, the signs long removed by vandals or souvenir seekers.

The hillsides above Lakeland Village are thick with underbrush and full of trees. Even the monument to those firefighters who died from burns they received battling one of the deadliest wildfires in Riverside County history has been removed. But there are those who still remember. There are those who still care, even through 42 years have passed.

The Decker Canyon Fire

Saturday, Aug. 8, 1959 was a hot, oppressive, sticky day in Southern California. Paul Mantz and Michael Moore, both 19 and members of the Downey Highway Hoboes, a teen car club, spent the afternoon cooling off and drinking beer with their buddies in the hills above Lake Elsinore.

Mantz told officials that he and Moore decided to leave the party after a fight broke out. They loaded an empty beer keg into the back of Moore's pickup truck and took off down the twisty Ortega Highway toward Lake Elsinore. Six miles from the party, Moore lost control of the truck on a curve and plunged 200 feet over an embankment.

The 6 p.m. accident sparked an inferno known as the Decker Canyon Fire. More than 500 California Department of Forestry and U.S. Forest Service firefighters fought the blaze. The fire burned 1,700 acres and forced the evacuation of Lakeland Village, west of Grand Avenue, as it swept out of the Cleveland National Forest and down the hill to the front lawns of some homes. It took several days for firefighters to control the blaze.

When it was over, six firefighters were dead.

Mantz crawled from the crushed pickup and was taken to Hemet Valley District Hospital with burns covering much of his body. He would survive. Michael Moore's charred body was found next to the beer keg at the bottom of the hill. He was the first to die. Over a month later, Sept. 14, California Division of Forestry fire truck driver John Guthrie became the fire's final fatality, succumbing to his injuries in a Redlands Hospital.

In between, District Ranger Ben Slater, and firefighters Nelson Harlan, Steven Johnson, Boyd Edwards and Andrew Brooks, all died from burns suffered on the first day of the blaze when the fire whipped back up the canyon and burned over their positions. Dozens of other firefighters were injured.

"All who had the misfortune to hear it will never forget the cries of the burned men pleading for water," a reporter wrote that day. "And the few who saw flesh falling from their seared bodies will never be the same."

Always dangerous

Wildfires are a part of life in California. Most of the fires are small and are quickly extinguished. Some grow bigger and require days to put out. Still others, because of wind, terrain and other factors, turn into infernos that burn thousands of acres and threaten hundreds of homes and lives.

Between 1990 and 1998, 133 firefighters died fighting wildfires in 33 states, according to the U.S. Forest Service. California had the highest number of fatalities ,26 - followed by Colorado with 16.

Every few years, a fire closes part of the Ortega Highway, which connects Lake Elsinore with Orange County, for a day or two. The swirling winds and sudden updrafts from the canyons near Killen Truck Trail, which connects with the Ortega Highway above Lakeland Village, played a large part in the Decker Canyon Fire fatalities.

"The Elsinore Front was the key," said John Ferguson, who was the Lakeland Village CDF station captain in August, 1959. "The fire started just before sundown when the ocean winds coming from Orange County are blowing down the canyons," he said. "In the late afternoon, the wind stops and then changes direction coming back up the canyons."

Those shifting winds blew the fire back at firefighters stationed on Ortega Highway. "The winds were blowing the fire rapidly down the canyon," according to a report written on May 12, 1960, by the regional forester to his supervisors. "The down canyon winds slacked off and for perhaps half a minute the fire appeared to be burning in a vacuum."

The fire suddenly started moving back up the canyon walls at speeds up to 100 mph. "As soon as the fire changed directions a general warning was shouted," the report states. "It was only a matter of seconds after the warning until the fire reached the highway."

The firestorm proved fatal.

"All of the men on the upper part of the firing operation were critically burned," the report stated. At 1,700 acres, the Decker Canyon Fire was relatively small. The Pechanga Fire, which burned last summer south of Temecula, consumed more than 11,000 acres of brush. "It may have been small," Ferguson said. "But it was vicious." Ferguson, 68, retired after 33 years with CDF and lives in Romoland.

"I'll never forget that day," he said. "It was my wedding anniversary. I was working and my wife was in San Diego. She got a call saying her husband was at a fire and that a lot of people had been killed. The caller told her he wasn't sure if I was dead or not."

CDF firefighter John Loop was stationed in Perris that day. His crew got a call about a grass fire on Old Highway 395 in the Lake Elsinore area. "We got to the small fire and could see the other fire burning up the side of the mountain," he said. "We put our fire out and went over there to help."

Loop's engine company was stationed at the bottom of the canyon for several days. "You have to know the country when you fight a fire," said Loop, 65, who retired after 35 years with the CDF. "You have to know the wind conditions. All of those men died on the highway. None of them died in the brush."

The Memorial

Nine months after the Decker Canyon Fire, work was under way on El Cariso Memorial Park to be dedicated to the memory of the fallen firefighters. The park, with barbecues and picnic tables, was built near the intersection of Killen Truck Trail and the Ortega Highway.

A stone memorial drinking fountain, a tribute to the men who died less than a mile from the park, and all others "who gave their lives fighting forest fires in these mountains," was erected next to the highway. Almost a decade after the fire the U.S. Forest Service named canyons in the fire area for Brooks, Johnson, Harlan, Edwards and Guthrie. The overall canyon, which encompasses the others, was named for the district ranger, Slater.

Wooden signs were hung along the Ortega Highway near the canyon bearing each man's name. Those signs are long gone. "Someone probably made firewood out of them," Loop said.

In the early 1990s, Loop started an effort to replace those signs with something more permanent. That effort spurred others to consider building a monument to all of the California firefighters lost in wilderness blazes.

"We started working on a memorial in about 1993," said Joanne Evans, Riverside County CDF public information officer. "We wanted to get it done by the 40th anniversary of the fire." That didn't happen. "We had a lot of people retired or get transferred," Evans said. "The whole effort kind of lost momentum." The planned memorial has three elements.

In April 1998, state Sen. Ray Haynes, flanked by several survivors of the Decker Canyon fire including Loop and Ferguson, stood near the planned memorial site off the Ortega Highway and read a proclamation designating the roadway as the California Wildland Firefighters Memorial Highway.

Earlier this year, the Forest Service began work on the second element, renovating the memorial picnic park next to the highway. 'We finally got money in our capital improvement project budget to get moving," said Judy Behrens, special project coordinator for the Trabuco Ranger District, which supervises that region of the Cleveland National Forest.

"We've fixed the nearby road and added new parking spots," Behrens said. Work at the park, now called the California Wildland Fire Fighters Picnic Area, should be done in October. Part of the renovation included the removal of the old memorial drinking fountain, placed nearly four decades ago, because it was felt to be too close to speeding cars on the highway.

"We're determined to get this entire memorial done," Behrens said. "When it will be complete depends on funding." A shortage of money has kept the third element of the project from beginning construction. Space has been cleared in the Penny Pines campground, on Killen Truck Trail across from the picnic area, for a monument to those who have died fighting California wildfires.

Original plans called for a 30-foot circular plaza, with three polished black granite monoliths where all the names of those who died in the line of duty in the state, as far back as 1900 would be engraved. The nonprofit California Wildland Firefighters Memorial Committee hoped to raise the $200,000 to built the tribute.

On Thursday, committee treasurer Ferguson said the group has lowered its sights. "We hope to raise about $100,000," he said. "Right now, we're about $97,500 short." The eventual design of the monument will depend on how much money is actually raised. "I want to do this and get it done," Ferguson said. "I'm not getting any younger." Ferguson said he hopes civic groups and corporations will get behind the effort. Donations can be sent to: California Wildland Firefighters Memorial Committee , PO Box 1763, Romoland, Ca. 92585.

"We've had a lot of people killed fighting wildfires over the years with no markers left to them at all," Ferguson said. "There is a memorial in Sacramento to all fallen firefighters and that's fine, but there is no monument for just wildland firefighters. Many of them were just college kids who did the work as a summer job."

Loop agreed that efforts to build the monument need to gain back their earlier momentum. "Most of the people (who fought the fire) are gone now," Loop said. "People better not forget what happened that day because it can happen again."

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Photos, Videos, & Tributes

  • California Legislature resolution (#107, assembly concurrent resolution) dedication of the "CDF Firefighter John D. Guthrie Memorial Highway" on February 22, 2008.
    ACR 107, as introduced, Cook. CDF Firefighter John D. Guthrie Memorial Highway. This measure would designate a specified portion of State Highway Route 215 as the “CDF Firefighter John D. Guthrie Memorial Highway.” The measure would request the Department of Transportation to determine the cost of appropriate signs so designating that portion of State Highway Route 215 and, upon receiving donations from nonstate sources covering the cost, to erect those signs. Fiscal committee: yes.
  • A section of I-215 dedicated in honor of firefighter who died of burns
  • 3/12/2019 | online article

    As friends and family looked on, a section of Interstate 215 was dedicated to the memory of a California Department of Forestry firefighter who died of injuries he suffered while battling a fire more than 50 years ago. "One night, August 8, 1959, this firefighter stood the test," Fire Chief John Hawkins said at the ceremony at the Riverside County Fire Department headquarters in Perris. "John Guthrie did not make it."

  • The El Cariso Fire Memorial is located in Riverside Co. at 32353 Ortega Hwy, Lake Elsinore (El Cariso Village), CA 92530. It has been called the "Decker Fire Memorial" by some, but also includes the name of Joe E. Adam who died on the Stewart Fire on December 18, 1958, not on the Decker Fire in 1959.
  • California Wildland Firefighters Memorial: Website | Ceremonial flyer (201 K pdf) and announcement posted on theysaid and the hotlist.
  • October 8, 2011 photo: The ElCariso HS alumni and others at the dedication
  • Article: The Fallen of the Decker Fire and all California's fallen are honored

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Contributors to this article: Doug Campbell, David Westley

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