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Deadly 1956 backcountry wildfire prompted list of “standard” rules.
If you head out to Julian for some apple pie this fall, take a look to the right just after you pass the tiny town of Santa Ysabel and its famous Dudley’s Bakery. You’ll see a sign for Inaja Memorial Park, home to picnic benches, hiking trails and a tragic wildfire that changed the face of American firefighting.
The 11 firefighters who died in the Inaja Fire of 1956 are memorialized in a monument at the park. And the failures that led to their deaths are remembered in another way — in the “Ten Standard Firefighting Orders” that guide firefighters to this day. They are a product of the lessons learned from Inaja.
In some ways, the orders are simplistic and vague. Even so, “they’re the rules that you never break,” said Matthew Desmond, a Harvard University sociologist who worked several summers as a wildland firefighter in Northern Arizona and wrote a 2007 book about his experiences. “You commit them to memory, your supervisors will quiz you on them and you’ll carry a little card around with the 10 orders on it.”
Desmond was on the phone with former co-workers Monday trying to get information about the 19 firefighters who died Sunday when they were overtaken by a wildfire near the Arizona city of Prescott. Only two other wildfires — in Idaho in 1910 and in Los Angeles in 1933 — have killed more firefighters.
The list of the country’s 10 deadliest wildfires for firefighters also includes two conflagrations in San Diego County: the Inaja Fire on Nov. 25, 1956, and the Hauser Creek Fire on Oct. 2, 1943. Each fire killed 11 firefighters.
The Inaja fire began when a 16-year-old boy from a local Indian tribe lit a match at a campsite. “I just got a crazy idea to throw a match in the grass to see if it would burn,” he later told an investigator, according to a 1956 news report. (The boy would grow up and live until 2006.)
It had been an unusually hot year on top of four years of low rainfall, and late November had brought the season’s usual dry Santa Ana winds.
Fire lookouts quickly saw flames around 9:15 a.m. and raised the alarm, according to an extensive report. Firefighters arrived within 10 minutes but couldn’t stop the flames, which scorched 25,000 acres by the evening.
By the next night, a team of brush cutters was working to create a trail near the fire when their supervisor caught sight of flames nearby. He told the workers to get out, and they did without any sense of rush. The boss yelled to hurry up.
The fire came nearer. Several men escaped with flames following just 10 feet behind them. But then some 40 acres of land erupted in a “flash-over,” apparently as gases ignited thanks to the rushing flames.
The fire killed 11 men — a prison guard, three members of a night firefighting crew and seven members of an inmate honor camp. A report blamed the deaths on a variety of factors, including lack of understanding of how fire works and lack of communication and information.
Out of the ashes came the “Ten Standard Firefighting Orders,” designed by the Forest Service to give guidance to firefighters. According to the National Interagency Fire Center, they are:
1. Keep informed on fire weather conditions and forecasts.
2. Know what your fire is doing at all times.
3. Base all actions on current and expected behavior of the fire.
4. Identify escape routes and safety zones and make them known.
5. Post lookouts when there is possible danger.
6. Be alert. Keep calm. Think clearly. Act decisively.
7. Maintain prompt communications with your forces, your supervisor and adjoining forces.
8. Give clear instructions and insure they are understood.
9. Maintain control of your forces at all times.
10. Fight fire aggressively, having provided for safety first.
There are dozens of other rules, too. Wildland firefighters are debating whether the missives should be consolidated or treated as guidelines rather than utterly unbreakable.
Desmond, the former firefighter, said the rules contribute to making firefighters feel that they’re in control if they adhere to them. “That kind of self-reliance is dangerous for firefighters,” he said.
San Diego County’s other deadliest wildfire for firefighters struck in 1943.
Its victims — nine Marines, a member of the Army’s Buffalo Soldier unit and a civilian whose identity is unknown — died when they were overcome by the Hauser Creek Fire northwest of Campo in the southeastern part of the county.
In a 2004 article, the San Diego Reader described how the fire was probably sparked by a wayward machine-gun bullet known as a “tracer” used in military training exercises in the backcountry near the border.
Santa Ana winds and dry temperatures helped the fire expand. It ultimately burned 10,000 acres and caused 72 injuries. And, as a fire historian wrote, it “dispelled any lingering sentiments” that untrained military types were better at fighting fires than trained civilians.
San Diego County’s annual wildfires will start appearing soon — preparations have already begun — and troops of firefighters will head to the back country to hold them off. Many of the firefighters will be young. Years later, they may look back fondly at their days amid the flames and ash.
“It’s hard work and it’s grueling, but it’s also very rewarding and satisfying,” Desmond said. “Fire itself is very beautiful, and there’s an attachment to fire that firefighters have. It’s not a pyro-maniacal fascination, but a kind of intimacy that you get after being around a lot of fire and seeing what it can do in a majestic way.”