Shovels won the fire fight

Shovels won the fire fight

11 September 2009

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USA — Today we have helicopters, air tankers, even super tankers. If there is a television image of a forest fire, it hardly seems complete without a fan of red-orange Phos-Chek feathering down.

Ground crews have fire engines and pumper trucks. Even hot shot crews in remote areas have chainsaws for cutting fire lines.

In 1914, there was none of that.

When a fire broke out in San Antonio Canyon, the National Forest Service couldn’t call in air support. There was no system to request help from distant fire crews from other national forests or firefighting agencies. Instead, every able-bodied man and boy grabbed a shovel and headed for the hills.

This particular fire broke out in the spring, on March 16. It was reported in the local papers to be “the worst forest fire in the history of the San Antonio watershed and … threatens the desolation of the entire Sierra Madre range.”

This was actually the San Gabriel range, but perhaps the reporter was a newcomer to the region.

More reliable are the reports that the citrus packing houses, the factories, the banks and even small businesses shut their doors so the workers could go help fight the fire. Classes at Chaffey High School were cancelled so “the boys might join in the fight to save the forests.” Ontario Mayor W.A. Freemire headed a group of firefighters that was the first to arrive at the front line of the blaze.

The residents were not simply interested in preserving the mountains’ natural beauty. The fire was threatening their livelihood. San Antonio Canyon was the major water source for Ontario, Upland and Pomona. If the canyon slopes were denuded, the natural water storage the towns relied on might be compromised and mudslides would be a threat.

The canyon also housed the San Antonio power station, which provided electricity for the towns.

In fact, the power plant was believed to be responsible for the fire. Strong Santa Ana winds blew down several of the power poles near the plant, igniting the fire about 10 a.m. By late in the day, the gusting winds had enlarged the fire to 30 to 40 square miles.

On the second day, the winds and temperatures intensified. The winds were of “such terrible velocity as to cause men fighting the flames to throw themselves on their faces to keep from being blown from the high ridges,” the paper said. Temperatures were reported as high as 93 degrees in Ontario, although the temperature in San Bernardino that day was 87.

Poor coordination and a shortage of canteens left many of the 1,000 men on the lines with no food or water. Those lucky enough to be near a stream “threw themselves into the water,” reports said.

On the third day, it was over.

By the end of the day, the men and boys were returning home. A contingent of 100 men stayed on the line to fight any flareups.

In light of our monster blazes today, it may seem surprising that 1,000 untrained firefighters armed only with shovels could put down such a large fire so quickly. Jon Keeley, a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, is a fire historian.

“Nothing would surprise me,” Keeley said of Southern California fires. “It’s really all a function of the winds and the terrain.”

Once the Santa Anas died and the coastal breeze came in, “it could have blown itself right back onto the fire and essentially had a fire break,” he said.

Today’s massive fires, he said, spread more quickly because of denser growth and chronic drought conditions that have plagued the region since 1960.

Still, the work of those early residents in taming such a rampant wildfire was impressive.

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