Sayre Fire: Hallowed Ground For Firefighters

Thursday, November 20, 2008 |

Having been away from Los Angeles this week and mourning the loss of a friend, mentor and legendary firefighter - it was with compounded sadness that I watched our beloved City ablaze.

Though off-duty and unable to respond from afar, my personal cellphone rang through the night with calls from reporters seeking "the story". With the initial Incident Command Post for the Sayre Fire listed as El Cariso Park in Sylmar, I politely guided journalists to the site by instinct, asking them but one favor:

"Please, tell the story behind the name of El Cariso Park"

With the flames too tempting a focus, nary a reporter would ask the question. A question which when answered, would put both meaning and perspective into the Herculean effort of firefighters working to protect Sylmar and neighboring communities from the Sayre Wildland Fire.

El Cariso Hotshots, October 1966. Click to learn more...For 'El Cariso' was not merely chosen as a nice sounding name for the 79-acre park, but rather a distinct honor bestowed upon hallowed ground to honor the memory of twelve firefighters, members of the El Cariso Hotshots. Ten would die on the mountain in the literal heat of battle. Two others are believed to have succumbed following the November 1, 1966 wildfire that scorched the same area of the western San Gabriel Mountains that burned this week.

As the Sayre fire moved west along the foothills this weekend, fanned - or should I say blasted by near-hurricane force Santa Ana Winds, there seemed genuine surprise that a fire could move so quickly - or that there could be a need to "evacuate a hospital" while "fires burned in two counties".

L.A. Times for November 2, 1966. Click to view more...The Los Angeles Times headlines and newspaper photos from 1966, tell a tragic story that will always be worth sharing. Not merely because Angelenos have forgotten, but because the blaze, dubbed 'The Loop Fire', has had monumental impact on wildland fire leadership in Los Angeles, across our nation and around the globe. The lessons taught us by the El Cariso Hotshots are ingrained in every wildland firefighter you meet, and the site of their last stand remains hallowed ground.

The fact that 1700 Los Angeles residents - many of them vulnerable, were safely evacuated during an equally fierce fire this weekend in the shadows of where the Hotshots laid down their lives 42 years earlier, speaks volumes of the lessons learned and the commitment they inspired.

Through improved fireground procedures, event intelligence, radio communications, protective clothing and safety equipment, the El Cariso Hotshots have brought benefit to every wildfire we battle.

In the early 1970's, inspired by the Loop Fire and other blazes, Southern California firefighters enhanced our regional management of emergencies through FIRESCOPE and an Incident Command System now used by emergency responders across the globe.

In the four decades since, the Loop Fire has served as a catalyst for an enhanced framework for handling disaster, and for helping our nation adopt both a National Incident Management System and a manner by which urban areas like Los Angeles can remain prepared.

It is this well-focused system - actively supported by the residents of Los Angeles, that allows LAFD and LAPD responders to work seamlessly with allied agencies in mitigating an epic conflagration like the Sayre fire.

Though the Sayre Fire soon proved too large to be managed from El Cariso Park - and the media moved on to more compelling stories, I wanted to make sure you knew the historical significance of our initial Command Post location, and what happened on that day in November 1966.

When in the Sylmar area, we hope you'll join Los Angeles Firefighters in taking a brief yet respectful moment at the Loop Fire Memorial in El Cariso Park to remember the important lessons shared unblinkingly but at immense cost by twelve gallant men.

To honor those who battled the nearby wildfires of 2008, the County of Los Angeles Department of Parks and Recreation hosted a public safety appreciation barbecue on January 9, 2009.


Submitted by Brian Humphrey, Spokesman
Los Angeles Fire Department

20 comments:

@ElaineHanson said...

Thank you for the story. We should know, and we should remember.

Doc said...

Thank you for this historical note, it is ironic, that 40 years has past and we are found fighting the wind driven fires at the same location. I arrived at the scene at 22:45 to watch the fire rage up the hill, by 01:30 I moved over to Hudson to see what damage there was and was immediately hit by gale winds. I set up my camera and waited, watching the fire become a fire storm, as other news media arrived, we documented the efforts of the County and City units doing everything possible to save lives and property. Thank you for making this personal, and I look forward to covering the memorial service.

Doc

Ophelia Chong said...

Thank you so much for reminding us of the brave efforts of the El Cariso Hotshots. This post is a wonderful tribute to these brave men.

And thank you to the brave fire fighters that fought the Triangle Complex Fire.

We wrote about a family on KCET.org that was evacuated on Saturday night. They are back safe and sound.

Mike said...

Thank you for the reminder. It is a shame that the media at large is focused so much on sensationalism and "oh my gosh this is the worst thing ever" style of reporting instead of being informative on the history and the causes of events in this area. It is almost as if anything beyond 2 years ago never existed and the sacrifices and lessons learned are soon so quickly forgotten.

Speaking with a group of 120 college students in the San Fernando valley after the great California shakeout, not a single one of them think an earthquake as bad as 94 will happen again in their life time, and only 2 had bottled water. We keep hearing how prepared LA is and yet, preparedness, be it fire or earthquake or any disaster starts and ends with the citizens, not the fire dept. All of the speeches from the Mayor and Council members about how ready the city is just gives the citizens a false sense of security, don't worry, we'll take care of you!

The brave men and women of the Fire Service give their all day after day against amazing odds and circumstances. At some point the citizens need to stand up and stop burying their heads in the sand, and the only way that will happen is if the media does their part to teach the history of what happened, and what will happen again.

Tom said...

Thank you for posting this. I have reminded several people over the past days of this important fact. Many others do not know why Veteran's Park has its name, as the site of the highest number of deaths in the 1971 quake. Its full name is Veteran's Memorial Park.

How can I be advised of the date and time of the gathering you mentioned? I attended the dedication of the El Cariso memorial - I believe in 1996 and would like to once again say thank you to those who helped save my home - again.

Anonymous said...

Please do not be offended if I say give me a break.

With all due respect, if I ran a TV station and any of my reporters working on that fire had stopped with the initial information and started talking about the El Cariso fiasco -- I would have fired him.

This is not to take one iota of heroism away from those people who died in 1966 ... but the fire is RIGHT NOW.

I didn't hear any "oh my gosh this is the worst thing ever" reporting at all.

Sensationalism? Are you kidding? That was a major damn emergency. I heard evenhanded, accurate reporting.

The fact that a major hospital was left blacked out, with smoke filling the hallways and nurses keeping people alive with handheld ventilators was major news.

The fact that critical patients were being rushed into ambulances to get to safety was a major news story. As a viewer, if anyone had stopped that breaking news coverage to start telling 40-year-old stories, I would have changed channels.

A friend in the news media -- who was working that early Sunday morning -- tells me the LAFD public service officers working that day actually argued that Olive View Hospital was not being "evacuated" -- while acknowledging that patients were being rushed away. "But that's not an evacuation," the reporter was told.

Reminds me of Col. Klink: "Hogan! There's never been an escape from Stalag 13!"

The time for history, context and memorializing is after the damn flames are out. The El Cariso story has been told over and over ... as it should be.

Brian, you are a wonderful source and very helpful to reporters, But urging reporters to delve into ancient history at a time of public disaster is just wrong.

John McNary,

Ashley said...

Firefighter Humphrey,

Thank you for sharing this story with us.


Ashley Rogers
LAFD Buff

LAFD Media and Public Relations said...

@elainhanson,

You are welcome.

@doc,

Thank you for your community oriented journalism. We look forward to seeing you.

@ophelia chong,

We continue to enjoy the diverse and engaging content at KCET.ORG. Thanks for your kind words and please keep up the great work.

@mike,

We can't say it any more plainly that preparedness begins with the man in the mirror, and you have to get a round tuit before disaster strikes.

@tom,

Point well shared. Small efforts by each of us can go a long way in memorializing these tragedies and most importantly, the lessons they bring us. Please stay tuned to this blog for details about the (simple) gathering at the Loop Memorial in El Cariso Park.

@mr mcnary,

Thanks for your candid yet sensitive comments. I am pleased to say that no offense is taken.

You wrote...

With all due respect, if I ran a TV station and any of my reporters working on that fire had stopped with the initial information and started talking about the El Cariso fiasco -- I would have fired him.

I apologize if my story was misconstrued.

The news media take many forms, and my mention of 'reporters' should not have caused anyone to assume them solely to be television based reporters.

Though I was off-duty and out of town, my personal cell phone (the LAFD does not issue me one) rang with little cessation from midnight to 4AM.

The reporters who called were veterans of print, wire service, radio, internet and yes - television.

Most were many miles from the site, and seeking driving directions and on-site contact for their morning broadcast or deadline, which in most cases, was hours away.

The plan for most was to file daybreak stories from the Command Post [emphasis added], and in my mind the El Cariso history might be considered a nice opening line - or for that matter the monument a nice point to stand for their cut-ins.

I'm sad that it was seen by you or anyone as more than a friendly FYI, that became incongruous when the Command Post moved.

In relation to your expressed concern however, it is important for me to emphasize that at no time did I do anything more than warmly and politely pose the request: "Please, tell the story behind the name of El Cariso Park".

It was never offered as a plea or a demand, rather an upbeat and polite suggestion at or near the end of a 1 to 3 minute conversation that had me serving as a no-cost human Thomas Guide. ;)

I must clarify that I never told the Loop Fire story to any of the media callers - instead encouraging them to seek out a Command Staff member for an explanation - ideally from the U.S. Forest Service.


I purposely didn't engage reporters who were "on the scene" and live (they were referred to my on-duty colleagues), and as mentioned earlier, I didn't tell anyone what to say, or for that matter, how to perform their craft. I'm deeply sorry if that was somehow inferred.

I didn't hear any "oh my gosh this is the worst thing ever" reporting at all.

Sensationalism? Are you kidding? That was a major damn emergency. I heard evenhanded, accurate reporting.


There are surely many who share similar or contrary opinions. I'm not sure any of us captured it all.

The fact that a major hospital was left blacked out, with smoke filling the hallways and nurses keeping people alive with handheld ventilators was major news.

I have yet to meet anyone who is disputing that.

As a viewer, if anyone had stopped that breaking news coverage to start telling 40-year-old stories, I would have changed channels.

We don't control the news media and don't want to. I've handled my share of campaign fires over the years, and as the hours drag on, it is sometimes historical morsels that help a reporter offer perspective or stand apart from the competition. At the end of the long day, it's their choice as to what, when (and if) they use what I and others offer.

Unlike the 1966 inferno in which 730 persons were formally and officially (ordered) evacuated from the Olive View and Veteran's Admin Hospital, the several people moved from Olive View Hospital during this fire were transferred by ambulance due to the need for enhanced care during the power outage, while the vast majority were sheltered in place.

Sadly, some in public service and the media use the term 'evacuate' so freely as to render it meaningless in times of duress. Such is a perennial challenge in crisis communications, especially when others wish to recraft our words.

Brian, you are a wonderful source and very helpful to reporters, But urging reporters to delve into ancient history at a time of public disaster is just wrong.

John, I appreciate the kind remark, yet remain saddened that my story may have been misconstrued. With the need to fill hours of airtime and inches of paper during a marathon event, I truly don't think it was wrong to offer a nugget - especially when I'm off-duty helping a reporter make their way in the middle of the night. Then again, that's my opinion :)

While I have periodic disappointment in what I see, hear and read, I can assure you that there was no frustration existed or remains on my part in regards to this historic element, which simply fell out of phase in the move of the Command Post.

The El Cariso Hotshots are my Brothers, and regardless of what the traditional media decides to do, I'm pleased to have written what I did.

Thanks for allowing me to share my candid thoughts. Please be safe and stay well.

Respectfully Yours in Safety and Service,

Brian Humphrey
Firefighter/Specialist
Public Service Officer
Los Angeles Fire Department

LAFD Media and Public Relations said...

All,

We sadly had to delete a pair of clearly impolite comments.

Please help us by keeping comments on topic and family friendly. If you happen to agree or disagree with another person that's OK.

Simply say so in a simple sentence without attacking them personally, and build your opinion and viewpoint without attacking others or relying on actualy or veiled profanity. Thanks!

Brian

Anonymous said...

Brian, none of of your apologies are necessary. Your friendly FYI was indeed misconstrued by me, here, as a finding of fault with the news coverage.

I would posit that "meaning and perspective" are important AFTER the story is told.

You made very valid points, but I think that your definition of the word "evacuation" is based on technical, firefighting terminology, rather than common English.

My little dictionary describes evacuation is to "remove (someone) from a place of danger to a safe place (or) 2. leave or cause the occupants to leave .a place of danger."

Brian, please never change, retire or get promoted. Sincerely, you are an asset to both the city's fire service and to journalism.

John McNary

LAFD Media and Public Relations said...

@ ashley,

Thanks for the note, and for your continued support of the men and women of the LAFD.

@mr mcnary,

Thanks for the additional note.

You wrote...

Brian, please never change, retire or get promoted. Sincerely, you are an asset to both the city's fire service and to journalism.

I appreciate your kind sentiment, but even more so your willingness to be frank and passionate. We need a lot more of that these days.

You needn't worry about me changing (too much), my retirement paperwork keeps getting lost on its way to the Chief's Office, and the promotion part?

I'd be breaking my cardinal rule of never wanting to supervise anyone who would be willing to work for someone like me!

As you and others likely noted, this was one of the rare personal blog posts. Writing from the first person on LAFD matters brings me to a point of discomfort, but is in some ways cathartic.

I have only a couple of first-person blog posts remaining in the weeks ahead, as I feel it the most appropriate way to honor a legendary Los Angeles Firefighter who was both my friend and mentor - and to introduce you to a wonderful blogger who is a community blessing.

After I get that out of my system , I'll be back to the stuff that people really come here for. :)

John, please know that your educated viewpoint and opinion are always welcome on this blog. Whenever Ron, d'Lisa or I happen to be ambiguous or just plain wrong, please let us know.

Respectfully Yours in Safety and Service,

Brian Humphrey
Firefighter/Specialist
Public Service Officer
Los Angeles Fire Department

LAFD Media and Public Relations said...

...and my heartfelt appreciation and a tip o' the LAFD helmet to Shelby Grad for the kindness of sharing word of this blog post (and more importantly the superb work of predecessors in the LA Times Newsroom) via the Los Angeles Times blog.

Brian

Anonymous said...

Brian,
Once again you have told a story worth telling. As I read this the first time, tears welled up and made it hard to read. Historical stories such as this one must be told and kept fresh in people's minds. We must never forget Heroes who perished in keeping others alive and safe.

Duane Kuhlow, Jr.

Bill Gabbert said...

Brian-

Thanks for your post about El Cariso Memorial Park and the Loop fire. I was a member of the El Cariso Hot Shots 1970-1972, just 4 years after that tragedy, which was similar to the 1959 Decker fire where 7 firefighters died--3 of them were members of El Cariso.

We will never forget those fires. Current day firefighters study the Loop fire, much like soldiers study battles from previous wars, to learn lessons and to avoid making similar mistakes.

Here is a post on my blog commemorating the 42 anniversary of the Loop fire. It also includes a photograph of the 1966 fire.

LAFD Media and Public Relations said...

@duane,

Thanks for your heartfelt praise, and for understanding how important it was for us to share that we were treading on ground hallowed by our heroes.

@Bill Gabbert,

Thank you for visiting our LAFD News & Information blog. We are humbled by your visit, and thank you for sharing additional information about the Loop Fire on your blog, which is a daily must read.

Again thank you for the honor of your visit and comments.

Respectfully Yours in Safety and Service,

Brian Humphrey
Firefighter/Specialist
Public Service Officer
Los Angeles Fire Department

Tom said...

Any news on a gathering?

Tom said...

Dear Friends,

El Cariso Park is hosting a BBQ this Friday, January 9th at 11:00 am in appreciation and recognition of and honor those who battled the Marek and Sylmar Fires. This invitation is to invite you to join them to show your appreciation too! The event is free. For questions, please call El Cariso Park at 818-367-7050.

Thank you and I hope many of you can join us!

Lori Wheeler, Deputy
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky
Van Nuys District Office

LAFD Media and Public Relations said...

Tom,

Thanks for forwarding that message from Lori Wheeler. As soon as I get a chance (I'm on the road today), I'll update this post and place a new article on our blog.

Again, thanks!

Respectfully Yours in Safety and Service,

Brian Humphrey
Firefighter/Specialist
Public Service Officer
Los Angeles Fire Department

Anonymous said...

very often i dream of the streets of the oakridge mobile home park before the big fire and i try to imagine what is was like watching the whole area burn down. the fire fighters saw it first hand, i can only dream it. a nightmare i'm sure. god bless the simi valley fire fighters who helped out along with the german fire fighter trainees who tried to give battle with only shovels and picks. my home was saved and it is more beautiful than ever.

LAFD Media and Public Relations said...

Anonymous 12:23,

Thank you for visiting the LAFD blog, and for commenting on this old but still highly important thread.

As your Neighborhood Firefighters, we are indeed blessed to be part of a vocation that knows no boundaries in commitment or service. Clearly, Southern California's wildfires serve as a testament to the planning, preparedness and as you mentioned: presence of so many.

As local responders, we do rely heavily upon regional, State, Federal and international support in our quest to keep you safe.

The Golden State's Master Mutual Aid System is the global standard for such cooperation, and in these times of austere budgets, we cringe at the thought that anyone may have in lessening or abolishing it.

We again thank you for mentioning the Sayre Fire, a blaze that sadly holds the record as the most devastating to privately owned homes in City of Los Angeles history.

Respectfully Yours in Safety and Service,

Brian Humphrey
Firefighter/Specialist
Public Service Officer
Los Angeles Fire Department

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