A Relentless Summer Of Fire

Keith D. Cullom reports on the wildfires that plagued the West, from Arizona to southern California.


With the flicker of flame, a new wildland fire season began. This year, the initial calls for aid were received from the state of Arizona and not only drew quick resource response but prompted a quick realization that 1996 was going to be a long, hot year on the fire lines in the West. With what...


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With the flicker of flame, a new wildland fire season began. This year, the initial calls for aid were received from the state of Arizona and not only drew quick resource response but prompted a quick realization that 1996 was going to be a long, hot year on the fire lines in the West.

With what has become a normal ending to spring, firefighters in several states were chasing early-season wildfires in light fuels but the activity and intensity were noticeably higher following the curing of grass and brush left prime after the severe winter of 1995 and a relatively mild summer burn that followed. In 1996, nature was ready to burn.

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Photo by Keith D. Cullom/IFPA
Low humidity and gusty winds caused the Marple fire to spread rapidly.


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Photo by Keith D. Cullom/IFPA
On the second day of the Castaic fire, 2,200 firefighters were operating.

By late June, structures were being consumed along with grass and brush on the eastern Sierra as major fires burned in Arizona, Nevada and Utah. Thousands of acres fell to flames through the early months of the season with no letup in the need for firefighting resources. By August, firefighters had given up an extremely high number of acres but still were in the game. Before the month was half over, firefighters would be challenged on many fronts as major blazes burned near Reno, NV; complex fires in Utah blackened over 160,000 acres; and houses were being lost in the 108,000-acre Warm Springs Fire in Oregon as well as in Mariposa County, CA.

By mid-August, more than 10,000 firefighters in seven western states were doing battle to try and keep up with 700 new starts reported by the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, ID. Some 3.99 million acres of watershed had already been converted to ash, as compared to the 1.43 million acres burned in all of 1995. Firefighters from Alaska to Puerto Rico were working the front lines in the West. With scores of major incidents now in progress, California fire activity changed from primarily preparation to attack.

In only a few days during mid-August, state and local agencies went from moderate incident levels to extreme. On Aug. 15, southern California firefighting resources were in a low draw-down level with most companies in district and only overhead personnel demands being ordered from local agencies for needs on fires in progress in northern and central California: 4,000 acres in Sequoia National Park, 24,000 acres in Mendocino National Forest, the 59,000-acre Ackerson Complex near Yosemite National Park and 70,000 acres in Lake County.

With burning conditions ideal on Aug. 15, firefighters in southern California were anxious as the alarm was sounded for a brushfire in the mid-state county of San Luis Obisbo County. At 1 P.M., a vehicle-caused fire in the Santa Margarita area of San Luis Obisbo would signal the beginning of weeks of intense firefighting efforts in southern California.

In San Luis Obisbo County, wildland areas outside of urban areas are the responsibility of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which had depleted its in-county resources due to state-responsibility fires in northern areas of the state. The 58 Fire burning off Highway 58 in the southern part of the county would require immediate mutual aid assistance and could not be stopped until more than 2,000 firefighters would report to the scene. For seven days, a small army of firefighters from all parts of California worked to stop the fire at 106,600 acres, saving all but 12 homes.

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Photo by Keith D. Cullom/IFPA
The fire burned 20,000 acres and was the largest in Los Angeles County since 1993.

In contrast to the week before, available firefighting resources statewide were now becoming extremely thin as new fires sought appropriate response levels. On Aug. 24, an intentionally set fire in the Azusa area of Los Angeles County prompted the redirection of resources as a blaze in 1,500 acres of heavy brush developed into a major fire. With another large commitment of resources, firefighters worked for four days to contain the fire but not before new problems developed.

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