Staff Ride to the Rattlesnake Fire
On July 9, 1953, a New Tribes Mission firefighting crew under the direction of U.S. Forest Service overhead was trapped by flames as they worked on a brush-covered hillside in Powder House Canyon on the Mendocino National Forest.
The crew was working on a spot fire in a narrow canyon covered with 40-year-old Chaparral brush. They had just completed construction of a hand line around their spot fire when a sudden wind shift caused another spot fire to flare-up. This other spot fire was located up-canyon from the crew. However, the unusually strong down-canyon wind pushed the uncontrolled spot fire toward the crew's location. Within 30 minutes the fire had run more than a mile down canyon, catching the crew while they attempted to fight their way through the heavy brush to safety. Fifteen firefighters perished on the Rattlesnake Fire that day. Nine fellow crewmembers barely escaped.
Much of the knowledge gained about wildland fire has come through the high cost of firefighter lives. Lessons learned from the Rattlesnake Fire played a large role in the decision to form the first national level task force to examine wildland firefighter safety in 1957.
This Rattlesnake Staff Ride resource is a product of the NWCG Leadership Committee. Project team members were:
- Jim Barry - U.S. Forest Service - Mendocino National Forest
- Doug Blangsted - California Department of Forestry
- Jim Cook - U.S. Forest Service - National Interagency Fire Center
- Daren Dalrymple - U.S. Forest Service - Mendocino National Forest
- Bryan Day - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
- Bill Holmes - California Department of Forestry
- Rob Holt - U.S. Forest Service - Northern California Service Center
- Bob Kambitsch - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
- Dan Mallia - U.S. Forest Service - Mendocino National Forest
- Ron Marley - Shasta College
- Sue Riedman - Bureau of Land Management - National Interagency Fire Center
- Nina Walker - Bureau of Land Management - National Wildfire Coordinating Group
- Scott Whitmire - U.S. Forest Service - Apprentice Academy
1987 interview with crew boss Paul Turner was conducted by John W. Allendorf, U.S. Forest Service, Northern Rockies Regional Office.
Special thanks to the Willows Journal for the retyping of historical newspaper articles.
Google Earth fly-around animation for the Rattlesnake area.
Documents and Publications:
*These documents are historical and are not currently 508 accessible; please contact NWCG if you need assistance having the documents read.
- *Letter to R5 Regional Forester
- *Letter to the Board of Review
- New Tribes Mission Notification
- *The Rattlesnake Fire (U.S. Forest Service investigation report)
- *U.S. Forest Service Rattlesnake Fire Brief
- *U.S. Forest Service Rattlesnake Fire Facts vs. Myths
- *Meteorological Conditions on the Rattlesnake Fire (1954 draft research paper)
- Report of the 1957 Fire Task Force
- *Rattlesnake Fire Weather Summary (1992 National Weather Service memo)
- Fire and Ashes by John N. Maclean, Henry Hold and Company, LLC, 2003
- Collection of transcribed newspaper articles from 1953 (Willows Journal)
Local Contact Information
Mendocino National Forest
825 North Humbolt Street
Willows, CA 95988
Phone: (530) 934-3316
The Mendocino National Forest boundary sign is located at the mouth of Powder House Canyon and is a good location to begin the Staff Ride. It offers a good view of the point of origin and terrain layout. This site also has suitable parking and is easy to find.
The Rattlesnake Fire was started at approximately 14:30 on July 9, 1953. It was the second of two arson fires started by the same individual. The first fire was called the Hull Fire and was set near Chrome, about 10 miles north of this location on County Road 306. The Hull Fire was suppressed at 11 acres on State land.
The Rattlesnake Fire was started on Mendocino National Forest land, along Alder Springs Road, at Oleta Point approximately 2 miles from this location. It was discovered by Mr. A. B. Miller while he was returning to Alder Springs from the Hull Fire. Mr. Miller had to drive past the fire to a point near Powder House Turn to verify that the lookout at Elk Creek Butte had seen and reported the fire to central dispatch at Willows. He reported that the fire was 25' by 30' when he passed it.
See the travel map above.
See the Orthophoto with fire edge and NAD 27 GPS locations for stands shown, above.
The beginning point, Stand 1, of the Rattlesnake Fire Staff Ride is easily identified by the Mendocino National Forest Boundary sign at the junction of Highway 162 and Alder Springs Road.
Looking west from Stand 1 at the mouth of Powder House Canyon you can identify Oleta Point (to the right of the telephone pole), which was the Point of Origin for the Rattlesnake Fire.
Looking east from Stand 2 towards the Sacramento Valley. The valley is the source of very strong diurnal temperature changes, which can have a significant effect on fire behavior in this area.
The Point of Origin is located approximately 100' up the Alder Springs Road from this spot at Oleta Point. Initial Attack was made on the fire at 1515 by Miller and a suppression crew consisting of five men, a tanker truck, and hand tools. The head of the fire was beyond the reach of the hose, so they anchored handline to Alder Springs Road, near the origin, and began flanking the south side of the fire. Shortly after they began a State crew of eight men under Assistant State Ranger Casaurang arrived and began helping construct handline along the south flank. The flank soon became too active to continue direct attack. Charles Lafferty soon arrived and at about 1600, instructed Silva and his forces to abandon direct attack. J.M. Ewing also arrived at approximately 1600 and was appointed Fire Boss (IC) by Forest Supervisor Leon Thomas.
The fire at this time was spreading, primarily in a westerly direction, on both sides of the ridge from Oleta Point. The fire was moving toward Rattlesnake Ridge, which is approximately 1 mile from the Point of Origin. There were a total of 15 men at the time and they moved further west along Alder Springs Road towards Powder House Turn with a new plan.
See the Investigation Report Figure 1, above.
See the Feature Orientation Map, above.
The Point of Origin is located west from Stand 2 about 100'. The fire was estimated to be 25' by 30' when Miller first arrived.
Looking up the Alder Springs Road from Stand 2. Rattlesnake Ridge is on the horizon.
After failing to control the fire through direct attack near Oleta Point, Fire Boss Ewing made a new plan in consultation with Lafferty. The plan consisted of:
- Control the head of the fire along Rattlesnake Ridge.
- Construct line and burn where needed along Rattlesnake Ridge to the west to High Point (there was an existing old fuel break along Rattlesnake Ridge).
- Construct line and burn from High Point down a ridge in a northeasterly direction to a point on Alder Springs Road near Powder House Turn.
- Use Alder Springs Road and burnout going west until meeting up with the burnout coming from Powder House Turn.
Almost directly across from Stand 3 is the white cross that was placed in 1993 near the spot that the majority of the firefighters were overtaken by the fire.
Although two attempts were made to construct line down to Alder Springs Road (Figure 1 - Points 22 & 23) neither were successful. At around 1840 a handline was completed between High Point and Powder House Turn. Burning up the road from Oleta Point and firing out from High Point down to Powder House Turn both began around 1920. Casaurang with his crew, supported by tanker equipment, were bringing the burning operation up the road, while a crew was burning down from High Point was under the direction of Robert Werner. When burning operations began on the ridge winds were upslope, out of the east-southeast and the crew was having a tough time getting the brush to burn. Just before 2000 "a local wind of considerable turbulence developed for a brief period" caused seven or eight spot fires below Alder Springs Road near the old car (Figure 1 - Point 11), just west of this location. At 2015 burning was suspended along Alder Springs Road to take action on the spot fires. It is at this time that Forest Supervisor Thomas discovered the Missionary Spot Fire across Powder House Canyon from the old car.
See the Fire Progression Map, above.
See the Investigation Report Figure 3, above.
Looking west from this location you can see the head of Powder House Canyon.
A new memorial was dedicated in July 2005 at the Overlook. The monument portrays the 15 firefighters who died on the Rattlesnake Fire. In the background across the drainage, crosses can be seen at the location where the firefighters were overtaken by the fast-moving fire.
From this location, you can see Powder House Canyon from top to bottom.
This point is located at the head of the Powder House drainage, along Alder Springs Road and offers personnel involved in the incident their best vantage of the overall fire and the Powder House drainage. It logically became the incident command post (ICP) for the incident. It is from this point that 21 Missionary crewmembers and three Forest Service overhead, in three different groups, were dispatched to attack and control the Missionary Spot Fire.
At approximately 2203 spot fires developed below the road at Powder House Turn (Figure 3 - Points 22,30,24,23,26, & 27) due to a wind shift shortly after 2145 from the west, down slope. Personnel at Powder House Turn took action on the spot fires. All the detected spot fires were either quickly controlled or burning upslope towards the road. While devising a plan to contain the rest of the spots a glow was observed further down the slope near the bottom (Figure 3 - Point 28). All focus was then directed to this new spot that was burning in a northeasterly direction. Lafferty soon realized that escape route for the men at the Missionary Spot Fire might become compromised. At 2215 Lafferty left Powder House Turn to warn the men working on the Missionary Spot Fire.
View the Fire Weather Summary above under "Research and Pre-study Resources".
See the Investigation Report Figure 2, above.
Looking from Stand 4 across to the Alder Springs Road. One of the spot fires started near the bottom of the drainage at this location. It was this spot that overtook the firefighters working on the Missionary Spot Fire.
Stand 4 looking east offers the best overall view of Powder House Canyon. This point also offers a good view of, and illustrates the importance of, the location of the Sacramento Valley in relation to the events that took place. This location, known as Powder House Turn, is where the Fire Boss and other overhead positioned themselves.
Looking west from Stand 4 shows the expansive Grindstone Canyon. This canyon offers an easy, natural funnel for heavier, cooler, marine air from the Pacific Ocean to rush down-slope and replace the condensing air of the Sacramento Valley in the evenings.
There is an interpretive site for the Rattlesnake Fire located at a rest area on State Highway 162. To reach this memorial continue west from Stand 4 on the Alder Springs Road for 2 miles until it reaches its junction with Highway 162.
This is identified in the Investigation Report Figure 1 as Point 10 and in Figure 2 as Point 4. The Missionary Spot Fire was originally detected at about 2015 by Forest Supervisor Thomas from Powder House Turn. The spot is believed to have originated sometime around 2005 when "a local wind of considerable turbulence developed for a brief period." Other spots were detected and extinguished just below Alder Springs Road and near the old car around this time.
Thomas, accompanied by dozer operator C.W. Randrup and a reporter Charles Gleeson, made a reconnaissance of the spot fire and it was determined by Thomas that it would probably burn to the top of Powder House Ridge and that they would attack it after it made its run. Shortly after 2035, when that decision was made, the upslope flow of air subsided. It was then apparent that the spot fire would not run to the top of Powder House Ridge.
At about 2100 Missionary Straw Boss Dave Johnson and three New Tribes Mission crewmembers were assigned by Lafferty to make initial attack on the spot fire. They were instructed to "not take chances and to start work at the head of the fire." This group walked directly from Powder House Turn, contour, to the fire, which is represented by Line 1 in Figure 2. At approximately 2115 Crew Boss Stanley Vote led 14 more New Tribes Mission crewmembers, including three more Straw Bosses, from Powder House Turn to join Johnson's group. Vote took his crew partway up the cat trail that had been constructed up Powder House Ridge and then down to the spot, which is represented by Line 2 in Figure 2. Lunches arrived at Powder House Turn shortly after Votes departure and at about 2145 Assistant Ranger Robert Powers and four additional New Tribes Mission crewmembers left Powder House Turn to take lunches to the people working on the spot fire. This group proceeded along Powder House Ridge to a point beyond the spot fire, down a ridge, and then back to the spot fire represented by Line 3 in Figure 2.
Upon arriving at the spot fire, the last group placed the lunches in the draw at the northeast corner of the spot fire. They were then told by Vote that the line construction was finished. It was there, in the draw that the lunches were counted and distributed. While that was taking place Vote and Powers discussed the fact that the main fire at the head of Powder House Canyon was flaring up and they walked a short distance up the ridge that the Missionary Spot Fire was on to observe the main fire. After returning to the draw Vote and Powers discussed whether the Missionary Spot would provide protection (safety zone). They decided to eat the lunches there, at the spot fire. They were all located in or near the draw on the east side of the spot fire. They had sat down for only a very few minutes when the warning came from Lafferty to get out, and hurry.
Read articles from the Willows Journal in 1953, above under "Research and Pre-study Resources".
Read the New Tribes Mission notification of the tragedy, above under "Research and Pre-study Resources".
Looking at Stand 5 from across the canyon you can see the location of the spot fire, and distances traveled by the survivors and those who were caught by the fire at the cross.
From Stand 5 you can see where Vote and Powers walked to the ridge on the western flank of the spot fire and observed increased fire behavior at the head of Powder House Canyon before returning to the lunch spot to eat.