Staff Ride to the Loop Fire

 

On November 1, 1966, the El Cariso Hotshots, a U.S. Forest Service Interregional Wildland Firefighting Crew, was trapped by flames as they worked on a steep hillside in Pacoima Canyon on the Angeles National Forest.

The crew was constructing fireline downhill into a chimney canyon and were within 200 feet of completing their assignment when a sudden shift of winds caused a spot fire directly below where they were working. Within seconds flames raced uphill, engulfing the firefighters in temperatures estimated to reach 2500 degrees F. The fire flashed through the 2,200 foot long chimney canyon in less than one minute, catching the crew while they attempted to reach their safety zones.

Ten members of the crew perished on the Loop Fire that day. Another two members succumbed from burn injuries in the following days. Most of the nineteen members who survived were critically burned and remained hospitalized for some time.

Much of the knowledge gained about wildland fire has come through the high cost of firefighter lives. Lessons learned from the Loop Fire resulted in improved firefighting equipment, better fire behavior training, and the implementation of new firefighter safety protocols.

The 1910 Fires Staff Ride is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:

This Loop Fire Staff Ride resource is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:

  • Jim Cook - U.S. Forest Service - National Interagency Fire Center
  • Jim Hall - U.S. Forest Service - Angleles National Forest
  • Carlton Joseph - U.S. Forest Service - Cleveland National Forest
  • Bob Kambitsch - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
  • Dan Kleinman - U.S. Forest Service - Sequioa National Forest
  • Mark Linane - Santa Barbara County Fire Department
  • Scott Lowden - U.S. Forest Service - Angeles National Forest
  • Ted Mason - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
  • Tom McGuire - Los Angeles County Fire Department
  • Gary Nelson - Los Angeles County Fire Department (retired)
  • Marilyn Porter - U.S. Forest Service - Angeles National Forest
  • Sue Riedman - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
  • Nina Walker - Bureau of Land Management - National Wildfire Coordinating Group

Special thanks to the following individuals for their interviews and insights regarding fire suppression in the 1960s and the Loop Fire:

  • Dick Caulkins - U.S. Forest Service (retired)
  • Mike Dougherty - U.S. Fire Administration
  • Chuck Hartley - U.S. Forest Service (retired)
  • Cliff Johnson - U.S. Forest Service - Angeles National Forest
  • Gordon King - U.S. Forest Service (retired)
  • Bud Moore - U.S. Forest Service (retired)
  • Carl Wilson - U.S. Forest Service (retired)

Click the image to open a larger image.

Travel Map

Travel Map

Fire Perimeter Map

Fire Perimeter Map

 
Investigation Report Figure 3 Map

Investigation Report Figure 3 Map

Southeast Flank Orthophoto with fire edge shown

Southeast Flank Orthophoto with fire edge shown

 
Southeast Flank Topo Map with fire edge and NAD 27 GPS locations for stands shown

Southeast Flank Topo Map with fire edge and NAD 27 GPS locations for stands shown

 

Audio/Visual references:


Fatality Fire Case Study video NFES 2567. Time: 22:54


Google Earth fly-around animation for the Loop area.

*These  documents are historical and are not currently accessible; please contact NWCG if you need assistance having the documents read.

Documents and Publications:

Local Contact Information

Angeles National Forest
Los Angeles River Ranger District
12371 North Little Tujunga Canyon Road
San Fernando, CA 91342
Phone: (818) 899-1900

Los Angeles County Water Department
Pacoima Canyon Dam
15300 North Pacoima Canyon Road
Pacoima, CA 91331
Phone: (818) 361-8196

Photo of Cliff Johnson

Hear excerpts from Bear Divide Foreman Cliff Johnson's interview:  audio file (mp3), transcript.

El Cariso Regional Park was established by the County of Los Angeles in honor of the hotshot crewmembers who were entrapped on the 1966 Loop Fire. This is a good location to begin a Staff Ride as it is easy to find, has good parking capacity, and provides an excellent perspective of the site from the monument.

The Loop Fire started at 05:19 on November 1, 1966 from a faulty electrical line at the U.S. Army's Los Pinetos Nike Missile Site. This facility is approximately 1 mile north of Contractors Point. The fire burned downhill in a southwesterly direction under the influence of 40 to 60 mile per hour Santa Ana winds. Contractors Point was a key anchor point on this east flank of the fire, which was designated as Division A. Suppression efforts in Division A on the morning of November 1st were focused on protecting the missile facility and establishing a control line south from that facility toward Contractors Point.

See travel map above.

See fire perimeter map above.

The entrance to the park is well marked. It will be a right turn if traveling north on Hubbard Street. The actual monument is all the way to the back of the parking area.

The entrance to the park is well marked. It will be a right turn if traveling north on Hubbard Street. The actual monument is all the way to the back of the parking area.

When viewing the San Gabriel Mountains from the park, one gains an appreciation for the extreme terrain over which the Loop Fire burned. Contractors Point is the high point of the ridge just behind the tree on the left. The south point of the ridge is clearly visible in the center.

When viewing the San Gabriel Mountains from the park, one gains an appreciation for the extreme terrain over which the Loop Fire burned.
Contractors Point is the high point of the ridge just behind the tree on the left. The south point of the ridge is clearly visible in the center.

 
El Cariso Hotshots: Photo of Crew 1 taken in October 1966.

El Cariso Hotshots: Photo of Crew 1 taken in October 1966.

El Cariso Hotshots: Photo of Crew 2 taken in October 1966.

El Cariso Hotshots: Photo of Crew 2 taken in October 1966.

 
 

By mid-day the north flank of the fire had been contained along the Santa Clara Fuelbreak up to Contractors Point. With the exception of a few minor slop-overs, the east flank of the fire was holding along the ridge to a point 40 chains south of Contractors Point (Stand 3). The Chilao Hotshot Crew, two Los Angeles County crews, and several tankers (engines) were working a large slop-over near Contractors Point. At 12:00 the Dalton Hotshot Crew on-scene at Contractors Point and were assigned by Division Boss William Westmoreland to build direct handline south from the Chilao crew along this east flank of the fire. At about 13:00 the Del Rosa Hotshot Crew arrived and Westmoreland directed them to work down the ridge ahead of the Dalton Crew. At 14:30 the El Cariso Hotshot Crew arrived on-scene. Line Boss Hugh Masterson briefed El Cariso Superintendent Gordon King. Masterson's instructions were to "leap-frog the Del Rosa crew and to cold-trail the fire edge if possible." He also mentioned that "the main ridge could be used as an alternate if impossible to follow the burned edge."

See the southeast flank topo map with NAD 27 GPS locations for stands shown, above.

Photo of Dalton Superintendent Chuck Hartley

Hear excerpts from Dalton Superintendent Chuck Hartley's interview:  audio file (mp3), transcript.

View looking toward the south point of the ridge from Contractors Point. Notice the break in the chamise brush field. This indicates the location of the fireline as it progressed south from Contractors Point during the late morning and early afternoon. The fireline was mostly built by dozers between the missile facility and Contractors Point. From Contractors Point south, handline was required.

View looking toward the south point of the ridge from Contractors Point. Notice the break in the chamise brush field. This indicates the location of the fireline as it progressed south from Contractors Point during the late morning and early afternoon. The fireline was mostly built by dozers between the missile facility and Contractors Point. From Contractors Point south, handline was required.

 
Loop Canyon is the major drainage looking down and to the west from Contractors Point. This is the drainage where the fire made its initial downhill run.

Loop Canyon is the major drainage looking down and to the west from Contractors Point. This is the drainage where the fire made its initial downhill run.

Typical Angeles National Forest front country brush and terrain looking east from Contractors Point.

Typical Angeles National Forest front country brush and terrain looking east from Contractors Point.

 

This is shown as Point A in the investigation report photo referred to as Figure 3. El Cariso Superintendent King led his crew to a small bench below this south point of the ridge and held them there until he could determine if it was possible to cold-trail the fire edge all the way down. King could see the Los Angeles County dozers and crews working the lower edge of the fire and believed he could tie in with them. At about 14:45 Line Boss Masterson requested Division Boss Westmoreland to go down the east flank and make sure the crews were lined out. Westmoreland had a radio and several of the crews did not have radios, including the El Cariso Hotshots. By the time Westmoreland reached the tail end of the El Cariso crew, King had led the first units of his crew well down into the steep rocky chimney staying directly on the fire edge. As a result, King never had a radio exchange or face-to-face meeting with Westmoreland, who was his Division Boss.

See the southeast flank orthophoto map with fire edge shown, above.

Photo of El Cariso Superintendent Gordon King

Hear excerpts from El Cariso Superintendent Gordon King's interview:  audio file (mp3), transcript.

Looking back from Stand 3 along the ridge toward Contractors Point. This was the 40 chains of open fire edge that was assigned to the Dalton and Del Rosa crews.

Looking back from Stand 3 along the ridge toward Contractors Point. This was the 40 chains of open fire edge that was assigned to the Dalton and Del Rosa crews.

 
The direct attack route that the El Cariso crew followed down.

The direct attack route that the El Cariso crew followed down.

The alternate indirect route mentioned by Line Boss Masterson. This ended up being the location of the final control line on this flank.

The alternate indirect route mentioned by Line Boss Masterson. This ended up being the location of the final control line on this flank.

 
Rocks arranged in an 'M' or a 'W' pattern about six feet across can be found location about 100 yards below Stand 3. This is about where the El Cariso crew would have left the ridge and entered into the chimney as they cold-trailed along the fire edge. Division Boss Westmoreland probably caught up with the tail end of the crew in about this location.

Rocks arranged in an 'M' or a 'W' pattern about six feet across can be found location about 100 yards below Stand 3. This is about where the El Cariso crew would have left the ridge and entered into the chimney as they cold-trailed along the fire edge. Division Boss Westmoreland probably caught up with the tail end of the crew in about this location.

Pacoima Reservoir as seen from the vicinity of Stand 3.

Pacoima Reservoir as seen from the vicinity of Stand 3.

 

This is shown as Point E in the investigation report photo referred to as Figure 3. By about 15:30 the El Cariso Hotshots were fully committed, cold-trailing their way down through the steep rocky chimney canyon with Superintendent King and the lead elements of the crew just starting to approach this point. Division Boss Westmoreland had followed them about halfway down and observed minimal fire activity, but he also stated that it was not a clean burn.

Photo of El Cariso Superintendent Gordon King

Hear excerpts from El Cariso Superintendent Gordon King's interview:  audio file (mp3), transcript.

At about this same time line construction by the Los Angeles County dozer and crews, that were working west along the bottom of the slope, was halted by a deep gully. This gully was adjacent to and just below the chimney canyon that the El Cariso crew was working down. There was no radio communication capability between the two groups, but they did have visual contact. Independently, both were trying to figure out how best to tie in the line. At this point, there was no more than 500 feet separating them.

Several individuals, who were working at the bottom of the fire, stated that the fire behavior was in a static situation with hot spots near the bottom of the gully and that there were favorable southeast winds. In addition, a helicopter was making water drops on the hotspots. According to these same observers, sometime between 15:35 and 15:45 the fire started to cross the bottom of the gully. Within the next 5 to 10 minutes the fire crossed the gully, made a run upslope to the bottom of the chimney, and then flashed very quickly up the length of the chimney. The steep rocky terrain made it very difficult for firefighters to move toward the previously burned area. Terrain conditions combined with the rapid fire spread resulted in all members of the El Cariso Hotshot Crew being burned over as they worked from this stand location and up several hundred yards in the chimney above.

See the Investigation Report Figure 3 map, above, showing the fatality site with fire edge.

Looking up from Stand 4 at the rock slide in the chimney canyon.

Looking up from Stand 4 at the rock slide in the chimney canyon.

Rock cairn that marks Stand 4. This was put up in 2002.

Rock cairn that marks Stand 4. This was put up in 2002.

 
Looking down from Stand 4 toward the gully that impeded the Los Angeles County crews line construction effort.

Looking down from Stand 4 toward the gully that impeded the Los Angeles County crews line construction effort.

Reptile hazard encountered on the hike up in warm weather.

Reptile hazard encountered on the hike up in warm weather.

 

Rescue operations began immediately after the burnover. These efforts included having the helicopter hover over very rugged terrain while the fire was still active in order to pickup the survivors in the upper end of the chimney canyon.

Photo of El Cariso Superintendent Gordon King

Hear excerpts from El Cariso Superintendent Gordon King's interview:  audio file (mp3), transcript.

That evening the Del Rosa and Dalton Hotshot Crews went on to complete the handline down to the bottom of Pacoima Canyon using the ridge and indirect line location that was identified as the alternate strategy by Line Boss Masterson. The fire was contained that night at approximately 2000 acres.

A Washington Office investigation and safety review was ordered following this accident. Several recommendations from the investigation and safety review caused significant changes in wildland firefighting equipment and procedures.

Pacoima Dam Road offers a good perspective of the entire working area around the fatality site, making it a good location to conduct the integration phase of the staff ride by having participants share their observations at the end of the day.

Read Paul Gleason's 30 year commemoration remarks

Read the Report of the Fire Safety Review Team from 1967.

Looking at the chimney canyon and fatality site from Pacoima Dam Road. Highest point visible on the ridge is Stand 3.

Looking at the chimney canyon and fatality site from Pacoima Dam Road. Highest point visible on the ridge is Stand 3.

Fire behavior and air tanker working just above Pacoima Canyon prior to the entrapment of the El Cariso Hotshot Crew.

Fire behavior and air tanker working just above Pacoima Canyon prior to the entrapment of the El Cariso Hotshot Crew.

 
Loop Fire under the influence of the Santa Ana wind.

Loop Fire under the influence of the Santa Ana wind.

Investigation team on site.

Investigation team on site.

 
Looking down the chimney canyon. Several of the investigation team members are barely visible on down the ridge. This photo was taken by Bud Moore, one of the team members, during the on-site investigation.

Looking down the chimney canyon. Several of the investigation team members are barely visible on down the ridge. This photo was taken by Bud Moore, one of the team members, during the on-site investigation.

Looking across the deep gully from the location where the Los Angeles County dozer and crews were stopped. Note the individual standing in the bottom of the gully, a short distance farther up from that point in the gulley is where the spot fire crossed and began its upslope run. This photo was taken during the winter following the fire.

Looking across the deep gully from the location where the Los Angeles County dozer and crews were stopped. Note the individual standing in the bottom of the gully, a short distance farther up from that point in the gully is where the spot fire crossed and began its upslope run. This photo was taken during the winter following the fire.

 
Page Last Modified / Reviewed: 
2019-11-27