ALDER SPRINGS – It was just past sunup whenfirefighters searching for members of their crew found the first of 15 men wholost their lives the night before in a race against a moving wall of flames.
A Forest Service ranger and 14volunteers from a missionary community died sometime after 10 p.m. July 9, 1953.They were scrambling downhill, trying to escape a wildland spot fire that atfirst burned uphill. A sudden wind shifted the fire’s direction, chasing andovercoming the fleeing men.
“They had nowhere to go. Thefire outran them,” said Jim Barry, Grindstone District implementationofficer at Mendocino National Forest headquarters in Willows.
At 10 a.m. Saturday, the ForestService will honor the memory of those lost men at an overlook near the site ofthe fire.
Barry is the event’s project manager.Together with CDF, California Ranch, New Tribes Mission and Glenn County FireChiefs Association, he has prepared educational exhibits at an overlook acrossfrom where the fire occurred.
Crosses marking the approximatelocations where the perished firefighters were found will be unveiled at theceremony. Mendocino National Forest Hotshots will guide hikers to the fire areaafter the ceremony.
The overlook and fire site will serveas a training center and reminder for the public and future firefighters of theincident’s deadly toll.
Called the Rattlesnake Fire becauseit was first assumed to be on Rattlesnake Ridge, it had at the time the largestnumber of wildland firefighter fatalities in a single incident in the history ofthe Forest Service, Barry said.
Author John N. Maclean wrote a bookabout the fire and said it’s the deadliest arson-caused wildland fire todate.
Among those planning to attend the 10a.m. memorial is Duane Stous, one of nine men who survived from the groupovertaken by the fire.
From his home in Florida, he recalledthe events that occurred that tragic night 52 years ago.
Stous said he and the other men hadtried to put out a small spot fire that flared up earlier on the face of a ridgenear Grindstone Canyon. At the bottom of the ridge is a creek or drainage, Barrysaid.
Across the drainage was the ridgewhere fire had spread and burned since an arsonist flicked a match early in theafternoon. The spot fire was contained around 10 p.m.
However, in a corner at the bottom ofthe ridge, simmering spot fires flared and started burning up toward where the24 firefighters had begun their evening meal. The crew was oblivious to themoving flames.
“We had just set down to eat,”Stous said. “It was late at night. The fire jumped over the road, got intothe canyon and started down canyon. We couldn’t see it because of the hill.
“One firefighter ran up theridge and hollered down to us to get out. Fire was on the road sweeping down onus. We didn’t know it was that serious. We got half way up, when he said weweren’t going to make it and told us to run back downhill.
Stous, then 27, barely escaped bymaking the fateful choice to head uphill instead of down.
“I was pretty much in the lead,and looked down thinking I’m not going out there’,” he said. “I wentup the hill. The others were too far behind. Fire swept by.”
Stous and eight others made it up toa firebreak when the blaze swept by. He said they continued fighting fire allthat night. On their minds were the 15 who went downhill, he said, and they keptasking crew bosses “about the fellows.”
Stous said those who survived thoughtthe other crewmen made it down to the creek.
Barry said that with the flamesburning 40-year-old brush at a speed of 15 to 20 mph, the firefighters didn’thave a chance.
“A wall of flames was aroundthem,” he said. “The brush was too tall and heavy … they were tryingto crawl (through it) and it overtook them.”
Twenty-six minutes after droppingtheir dinners to get away, the men perished, he said.
Stous recalled what happened when heand others went looking for the lost men.
By breakfast, no one had heard fromthe 15, and a ranger said he’d drive in to the area to check on them.
“Some of us went with him,”Stous said. “We got up there across from where they were trapped againstthe side of the mountain.”
The sight of some of the men inclumps and burned so sickened Stous that he got off the truck he was on andwalked off by himself.
“I was praying, trying to figureout why God would (let it happen.) They were serving God. It was hard for me tofigure it out.”
Stous said he wasn’t traumatized bythe event because as he walked, sorting out what happened that black night, herealized he’d been spared from death for the second time in six months and he’dmade that crucial decision not to try going downhill with the others.
“It gave me confidence (God) hadspared my life – that the Lord knew what he was doing,” he said. “Ihad peace of mind and never questioned it since.”
Ten months after the fire, Stousmarried the widow of firefighter Howard Rowe and adopted Rowe’s three youngchildren. Rowe was one of the men who died trying to escape the swift blaze.
Stous said he has never been back tothe site of the fire, and is anxious to get back and see the memorial.
At the ceremony, the Forest Servicewill dedicate a new training site overlooking the location of the fire nearGrindstone Canyon, along the old Alder Springs Road. Maps, weather informationexplaining why the fire shifted downhill that night and other exhibits are partof the overlook.
In 1957, a task force was assembledto study the Rattlesnake and other wildland fires to reduce the number offatalities. Ten standards for fighting wildland fires resulted from the taskforce.
The Rattlesnake Fire, its behaviorand its victims, continues to be a literal training ground for fighting wildlandfires today and in the future.