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VAFB firefighters, leaders gather to remember 36th anniversary of Honda Ridge Fire

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. –Members of the Vandenberg Fire Department and senior base officials met on South Base Dec. 20th to honor the memory of Team V personnel who perished in the Honda Ridge Fire 36 years ago.  This memorial bench was built by a Team V firefighter and placed near the approximate location where Vandenberg Installation Commander Colonel Joseph Turner, Vandenberg Fire Chief Billy Bell, Vandenberg Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Cooper and Heavy Equipment Operator Clarence McCauley perished that day in 1977. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class Yvonne Morales)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. –Members of the Vandenberg Fire Department and senior base officials met on South Base Dec. 20th to honor the memory of Team V personnel who perished in the Honda Ridge Fire 36 years ago. This memorial bench was built by a Team V firefighter and placed near the approximate location where Vandenberg Installation Commander Colonel Joseph Turner, Vandenberg Fire Chief Billy Bell, Vandenberg Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Cooper and Heavy Equipment Operator Clarence McCauley perished that day in 1977. (U.S. Air Force photo/ Airman 1st Class Yvonne Morales)

VANDENBERG AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. -- Members of the Vandenberg Fire Department and senior base officials met on South Base Dec. 20th to honor the memory of Team V personnel who perished in the Honda Ridge Fire 36 years ago.

"Fires on this base usually burn low-frequency but high-intensity," said Jesse Hendricks, Vandenberg Hot Shots superintendent. "So when we do have fires on this base, they burn hot. About 51,000 acres of 91,000 acres of this installation is brush and wildlife."
This held true on the morning of Dec. 20, 1977, when high winds caused a power pole to snap, allegedly igniting the dense chaparral that covered a canyon on the southern portion of Vandenberg.

According to historical documentation, throughout the duration of the incident firefighting resources attempted numerous tactics attempting to suppress the fire. Many of these tactics may have proved to be effective on an average brush fire, but the volatile conditions faced on this fire were anything but average.

"The winds gusted to exceed 100 miles per hour," Hendricks said. "The fire was pushed through drought-stricken chaparral at abnormally high speeds. Fire rapidly moved down through Honda Canyon to the west before taking a path towards the north along Vandenberg's coast. Firefighters continued to alter suppression efforts in order to meet the dynamic challenges brought on by the raging fire."

The fire not only claimed 9,040 acres but also the lives of Vandenberg Installation Commander Colonel Joseph Turner, Vandenberg Fire Chief Billy Bell, Vandenberg Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Cooper and Heavy Equipment Operator Clarence McCauley.

"We don't know where and when the next base wildfire will be," said Col. Keith Balts, 30th Space Wing commander. "It likely will not be on this spot, in this canyon, or with that kind of fire, but a positive take-away from this tragic fire is all the lives that have been saved and will be saved since 1977. The Hot Shot program was birthed from this tragedy, policies and procedures changed... we also adapted our training programs and resources to prepare in case of future incidents."

The group paused for a moment of silence at 9:36 a.m. in remembrance of those who had died that day, the same time the late Vandenberg Fire Chief Bell sent his last transmission to say that he was trapped.

Base leaders and firemen alike have a mutual message when talking about the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire: Never forget the fallen or the lessons learned that day.

"The lessons that were learned were hard paid," said Clem Marrero, a Vandenberg Fire Department chief. "The atmosphere that we have now with an emphasis on training and top-notch equipment is due in part to that fire. The take away is to not forget what happened before us and carry those lessons forward."