El Cariso Hot Shots 1966

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Life at the El Cariso Hot Shot Camp


The El Cariso Hot Shot Camp was run very much like the military. I believe we arose at 6 am each morning and completed chores which had been assigned to each person to perform before breakfast. There was a roster posted on a large bulletin board listing assignments and chores for each person. The assignments changed either each week or every two weeks. Some chores consisted of sweeping and mopping floors, cleaning our barrack, the outhouse, shower, laundry room, kitchen and other places. We did a variety of other light camp maintenance, like mowing a small area of grass behind the entrance sign, pulling weeds, and painting buildings and signs, and rocks, along with the regular assigned chores. It was much better when we were actually on fires as the time passed by faster. It never rained the entire summer (three months) while I was there.

During my first week at El Cariso, we were taken out to a US Forest Service old fire tower site. I don’t remember if the tower was still there or even if it was being used anymore. There may have been a communications radio tower there. I recall digging and scrapping leaves and sticks for hazard reduction on some very rocky ground. I had injured my back in April of 1966 during our Forestry Conclave, held at Stephen F. Austin State College, Nacogdoches, Texas. I was helping move some long, heavy pine poles and had strained something in my back. On the plane trip out to California, I wondered if I was going to be able to work at that job, as I was in a lot of pain. On our first trip out to do hazard reduction, I thought I was going to pass out while working! We were called to the Wellman Fire about a week later.  Luckily my back had improved and I was in much better physical condition.

I was fortunate enough to get to work in the tool shop. I worked with Jim Paluzzi. I recall one time he was sharpening a brush hook without wearing gloves. The file slipped and he cut his right hand index finger to the bone. It was a really bad cut. It sure made me be more careful and always wear gloves when sharpening tools. I learned how to sharpen fire tools which later came in handy with sharpening and maintaining my own yard and garden tools and equipment. We also inspected fire tools as we cleaned and sharpened them. We sanded the wooden handle and painted a red band around the handle near the metal head of the tool on good fire tools, but about 6 inches below where the metal part was attached to the tool handle, so as not to cover any cracks or hidden damage in the wood.  We would “retire” old fire tools to be used for camp maintenance or hazard reduction by painting a green band around them and separating them from the good fire tools which were made ready for the next fire.

On a normal day, breakfast was at 7 am. A professional cook prepared our meals. We were charged for our meals in camp but I do not recall the amount. Each person was responsible for preparing his own sack lunch after breakfast. Some days we did calisthenics or “hiked” (actually ran) up the hillside behind the camp for exercise. We would also be driven out on the forest somewhere and practice cutting fire line with various scenarios put into play, such as the foreman would throw down a red cloth or something and claim it was a hot spot.  The hot spotting team would break loose from the crew and work the simulated “hot spot”. The practice area we went to had huge smooth round rocks and boulders just like in some of the old 1950s western movies with Roy Rogers or Gene Autry, etc. Neat! Sometime we would have a hot spotting contest by throwing shovels of dirt at a target. One time there was a hot spotting dual. A couple of guys threw dirt at each other until one gave up. They of course wore goggles, and protective equipment. All in fun.

We did hazard reduction in several areas, removing brush and leaves along roadsides and in one case a pine plantation. In camp, we regularly attended classes in fire behavior, fire weather, fire line construction, fire tool order or tool line up, tool maintenance and safety.  

We usually had a very good dinner at night, again, prepared by a professional cook. Unfortunately out on the fire line, away from fire camp, we usually had the old Army type C-Rations and they were not good at all, nothing like the MREs (Meals Ready to Eat) of more recent times. However, in actual fire camp, when we had the luxury to be at a fire camp, the food was extremely good, and you could have all you wanted to eat. I am not sure if we were charged for those meals in fire camp.  

Every once in a while and unexpectedly, we would have a fire drill at the camp. A siren would be turned on at the camp office, where superintendent Gordon King and assistant Warren Burchett stayed. We had three minutes to be on the crew trucks before they departed the compound, no matter what we were doing! Our fire gear was already in back packs on the trucks except for any personal items or extras that you might want to take along, like a camera, extra clothes, toiletries, etc. It was our understanding that if you missed getting on the truck and it went out the gate without you, you were terminated and sent home.

I had thought we worked a five day week, Monday through Friday. But Ed Cosgrove recently told me that our normal work week was Wednesday through Sunday. Some nights, we were on standby at the camp. We earned fifty cents an hour on standby. Salary at the beginning of the summer on fires was $1.99 per hour and $2.05 per hour beginning July 1st. I don’t think there was straight overtime, just some kind of “differential pay scale” as they called it. When we worked all night on a fire, it was “night differential” and I don’t have a clue what the actual pay was.  I assume we alternated weekend standby with other Hot Shot crews. Since most personnel were from the surrounding area, they would go home or leave the camp on weekends when we were not on standby.  The kitchen was closed on our two days off, and unless we had saved back some food, there was nothing to eat! We had no transportation and there were no stores nearby. Lake Elsinore was too far to walk to. Tom Graham and I hitch hiked to Lake Elsinore and back one time. It was about 4 miles from the camp, one way, I have been told. It seemed much further. I recall a steep, crooked mountain road to Lake Elsinore.

It was lights out at 10 pm each night at the El Cariso Hot Shot Camp. The old Army type bunk beds were small and very uncomfortable. The old metal building was thin and was hot during the day and cold most nights. We had a locker to keep our personal belongings in. I think it was a double locker, with one on top and the other below, but I do not remember. They were tall.  I do remember those gray painted, thin plywood floors bowing when walking on them. I think someone said they were quarter-inch thick plywood!  There was no toilet in the barrack and one had to go outside across the wide gravel area to the pit toilet. We had no television or recreation room.

Some of the guys had small personal battery powered radios. I recall early one morning on a fire, waking up, after sleeping on the ground.  The sun was just coming up and it appeared large and very bright reddish-orange.  Some one had a pop song playing on their radio. The group was singing "the morning sun is shinning like a 'red rubber ball'”. The song was Red Rubber Ball by The Crykle. I have included that song below. Just click on the link "Red Rubber Ball".

Red Rubber Ball (Click to Play)

I had received a letter from my former high school girl friend that she was getting married on Saturday, June the 11th.  This was the day before we left for the Wellman Fire. I always thought of this song as "My" 1966 summer theme song. 

I recall late one night on a fire we were being moved by crew trucks to another location. We rode by a mountain that had burned just within the past hour or so and it was still glowing. The glowing embers made the mountain an incredible sight to see! It was beautiful.  I had wished I could have taken a picture of it but I didn’t think my cheap camera would have taken a picture in the dark that could have been determined what it actually was when the picture was developed. I saw other incredible sights that summer that neither a still camera nor a video camera could have actually captured the full effects of the awesome events.  As they say, “You had to be there!”

One night we were on standby and it may have been on a Saturday. Both crews were allowed to go to a movie in Lake Elsinore. It was an Elvis Presley movie, Blue Hawaii, made in 1961! We were in the theater about 30 minutes when someone came and said we had a fire to go to. We left the movie theater, loaded the crew trucks and headed to the fire. It was after dark when we rolled.

Another time we got to go to a Methodist Church camp which had a large swimming pool. I do not recall the name or location of this facility. I don’t think it was very far from our camp. We rode up this wide and flat canyon dirt road with large oak trees along the road and it looked just like where they may have filmed some old western movies or scenes from the Dukes of Hazard TV show. We were at the camp about an hour when we got a call to go to a fire! The movie and the attempt to have some rest and relaxation time at the swimming pool were the only recreation events we had as a group all summer.

One weekend, someone stayed at camp that had a car and several of us went down to  Lake Elsinore to a small bar and we had a couple of cold beers. Later we laid on the “beach” at Lake Elsinore and went swimming in the lake. The water was very warm and I was told the lake was shallow, only about 6 to 8 feet in the deepest part. I think it was Mark Turnham who had the car. He had worked at Disneyland.

I had taken a Sears barber kit with me and several of us cut each other’s hair, usually a burr haircut. It would have been very difficult to get to Lake Elsinore or anywhere else near by to get a haircut.

On one occasion during the week, we were taken to a Forest Service supply and storage facility in Escondido, California, to clean fire tools and equipment for use in campaign fires. It was a very nice building. We spent most of the day there. I remember going to a fire on one of the major highways through San Diego and maybe Los Angeles, riding in the crew trucks and seeing all the Forest Service vehicles and equipment in route to a large fire. It was impressive! It was incredible to see all the trucks, trailers, dozers and equipment going to a campaign fire. We definitely had a convoy! It took a lot of material and equipment to set up and run those large campaign fire camps. Some camps were in operation for weeks at a time. Tons of food, water and supplies had to be hauled in and set up and prepared, to feed hundreds of fire fighters 24/7. As we passed or were passed by tractor trailer rigs on the multilane highways, our guys would lift their arm and pretend they were pulling on a horn chain….a signal to the truck drivers to blow their horns. Nearly all of them obliged and honked their loud truck horns! That was our fun on the way to a fire!

Back in those days, no women were allowed on the fire crews or even in fire camp. To the best of my knowledge, there were no women on any Hot Shot crews in 1966. That is, least none, that I am aware of. I remember one time, a young woman showed up at fire camp and she was quickly told to leave and I believe she was escorted out of the fire camp area immediately!

One night as we slept near a large fire camp, we heard a loud blood-curdling scream which sounded like a woman screaming at the top of her lungs. The next morning we were informed that it was a Mountain Lion that wandered into fire camp!

On one occasion, they brought out a couple of bus loads of convicts to work on a fire. The armed guards got back on the bus and left the inmates for us to supervise! I forget how many were actually brought out, approximately 60 or more inmates, but only five or six would work constructing fire line, and the rest laid down in the shade! A couple of them found a rattlesnake and played a game of throwing it with a shovel at each other. We didn’t need that kind of help on the fire line! I was glad when they left and we never had to deal with them again.

There was a fire in Alaska at the end of the summer of 1966. I thought the crew had gone and come back early but I recently learned from Jim Brown, the crew was on standby and never went to the fire. At the time, I could not go on the Alaska fire, as I was about to leave California and return to college for registration for the fall 1966 semester.  From 1963 to 1967, I was attending college partly on a college loan, but worked summers and saved money to pay for college expenses.  I earned enough money that summer to pay for three semesters of college! I cleared about $1700 that summer.  Our plane tickets from Dallas Love Field to LA International Airport was a “Business Man’s Special” for $99 each way.

As September 1, 1966 approached, I thought about staying on with El Cariso and work through the fall of 1966 to the end of fire season or until the end of December 1966.

But, I decided it would cause me to delay my scheduled graduation in May 1967. The decision to return to college that fall probably saved my life.  It was two months later, on November 1, 1966, that ten crew members of the El Cariso Hot Shots died from burns received on the Loop Fire. Two more died later in the hospital from the fire injuries sustained on November 1, 1966.  I think at least 11 of the survivors were seriously burned also.

When I worked on Crew 1, I was the lead Pulaski and I would have been about the 4th person in the tool line up (front to back) on the crew if they had been running the standard tool lineup like we had done during the summer. I also would likely have been a casualty.

The ten El Cariso Hot Shots who perished on the Loop Fire, November 1, 1966, were Raymond Chee, James Mooreland, Michael White, John Figlo, William Waller, Joel Hill, Steven White, John Verdugo, Daniel Moore, and Kenneth Barnhill.  The two who died later in the hospital were Carl Shilcutt and Fredrick Danner.

The survivors included Gordon King, Warren Burchett, Glen Spady, Joseph Smalls, Edward Cosgrove, Rodney Seewald, Stephen Bowman, Charles Gibson, Franklin Keesling, Jerry Gunter, William Davidson, Thomas Sullivan, Jerry (Gerald) Smith, William Parshall, John Moore, Richard Leak, Robert (Bob) Chounard, Patrick Chase, and Tom Rother.

These names were recorded from an article from the House of Representatives, entitled A Tribute to the El Cariso Hot Shots, dated Monday, March 17, 1997 (Vol. 143, No. 34).

I do not recall how I first learned of the deadly Loop Fire of November 1, 1966.

I received a letter from Rodney Seewald with photos of the two crews made in October 1966, and newspaper clippings about the Loop Fire. There were articles in the Houston Post newspaper dated November 3, 1966, telling about the fire.  When I heard the bad news, I just could not believe it! I had worked with most all of the guys that summer. We talked, shared food and water, joked and had lots of laughs, and helped each other.  It really saddened me. My heart goes out to their families, friends and coworkers. They will never be forgotten.

The summer of 1966 was an incredible adventure. There were some anxious, scary moments and some close calls. I saw and experienced events which I will never forget, nor will I ever forget the great guys I met, worked with, and knew during that summer of 1966.

David S. Westley    
                     September 17, 2009

921 Bonnie Bell Lane

Greenwood, Arkansas  72936


David Westley - El Cariso Hot Shot Camp 7 am August 1966