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Incident Name:  Rattlesnake Fire on the Mendocino National Forest
Date: July 9, 1953
Personnel: New Tribes Mission Firefighting Crew, Fouts Springs, CA; 2 Forest Service employees: 15 lives lost
Age: 
Agency/Organization: US Forest Service
Position: Firefighters

Summary:

Robert Powers, 36, married two children, FS employee
Ray Sherman, 19, married, no children
Stan Whitehouse, 30, married, four children
Stan Vote, 24, single, FS employee
Darrel Noah, 31, married, four children
Bob Mieden, 35 married, two children
Paul Gilford, 32, single
Benny Dinnel, 27, single
Harold Griffis, 37, married, seven children
Dave Johnson, 27, married, two children
Howard Rowe, 25, married, two children
Sergio Calles, 40, married, no children
Cecil Hitchcock, 20, single
Dan Short, 20, single
Allan Boddy, 30, marriage status not given

The Rattlesnake Fire, an arson fire, was started about 1430 hrs on July 9, 1953 on the Mendocino National Forest, approximately 28 mi NW of Willows CA. It was discovered along Alder Springs Rd. near Oleta Point and reported to Willows Dispatch. At 1900 hrs about 100 people were fighting the fire and the wind was blowing about 15 mph out of the SE. Just before 2200 hrs the wind quieted but then quickly changed direction, lighting spotfires. The fire jumped the lines and overran firefighters. Nine raced uphill to safety. Fifteen retreated downhill and died. The tragedy stimulated the Forest Service to increase firefighter training and research on fire hazard management.

15 Fallen at Rattlesnake Fire 15 Fallen at Rattlesnake Fire

Rattlesnake Fire Location Rattlesnake Fire Location
Rattlesnake Fire Memorial Rattlesnake Fire Memorial

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Maps

Rattlesnake Burnover Location

Rattlesnake Fire Progression Map (542 K pdf)

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Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

  • USFS: Brief Summary 7/9/1953 (520 K pdf)
  • US Forest Service: Rattlesnake Fire Report (8,676 K pdf)
  • Interview from 1987: New Tribes Mission Crew Boss Paul Turner (mp3 file); conducted by John Allendorf
  • The Rattlesnake Fire Staff Ride website
    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.
  • Wildland Fire Leadership: Remembering the Rattlesnake
  • Forest Service: Wildland Firefighter Safety Report of 1957 laid out where firefighting was and what we needed to do better. This report on the Forest Service internet was one of the first. The elegant and educational page was created by Kelly Andersson for the Forest Service in 2000 or 2001. The copy is no longer on the FS web but can be accessed via the waybackmachine. Give the snapshot a moment to load.

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Wildlandfire.com Links:

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Media Articles and Reports

  • (Taken from Vol. 77, No 4. on July 10, 1953-The Willows Journal and borrowed from the Staff Ride Website. (10 K pdf) Other articles are available there.)

    13 of Dead Were from New Tribes Missionary Camp

    By CHARLES J. GLEESON

    Fifteen men died in a forest fire last night because someone either got careless or tuned arsonist. The victims, 14 of them members of the New Tribes Mission’s boot camp at Fouts Springs, were killed along the Alder Springs road just below Powder Point bout 28 miles northwest of Willows. They died as a result of a sudden shift of wind, just as crew of about 100 fire fighters thought they had the blaze under control.

    List of Victims

    The men were: Robert Powers, 36, married two children; Ray Sherman, 20, married, no children; Stan Whitehouse, 30, married, four children; Stan Vote, 26, single; Darrel Noah, 35, married, four children; Bob Meiden, 32 married, two children; Paul Gilford, 32, single; Benny Dinnel, 23, single; Harold Griffiths, 37, married, seven children; Dave Johnson, 25, married, two children; Howard Rowe, 25, married, two children; Sergio Calles, 40, married, no children; Cecil Hitchcock, 21, single; Dan Short, 21, single; Ellen Boddy, age and marriage status not given. All except Powers live at the New Tribes Mission’s boot camp at Fouts Springs. Both Powers and Vote were federal forest service employees. Powers, transferred here about three months ago and had been living at Alder Springs.

    Here’s the story

    The blaze broke out alongside the road about 2:30 o’clock yesterday afternoon. By 7 o’clock about 100 men were on the scene, including a large detachment from the mission camp, which customarily helps fight fires. It was believed at that hour the blaze, raging in scrub timber and brush, would soon be under control. It had been corralled on three sides and firefighters gathered on the point to watch the final effort hemming in the other side. The wind was then blowing at about 15 miles an hour, and from southeast. A short time before 10 o’clock it died down, and control seemed only a few minutes away.

    Meantime, sparks had set 3 sport fires about a quarter mile down the canyon from the point. A crew of 24 was sent to check it, headed by Powers. That was about 9:30 o’clock. By 10 o’clock these men had the sport fire checked, and so they sat down to eat. The 25 men said grace, then started in on their milk and sandwiches. By around 10 o’clock, too, the wind sprang up again, and this time in the opposite direction—from the north. In a few minutes it had reached a 15-mile and hour velocity. The fire jumped the lines and began billowing down the canyon.

    Were in Gully

    The new Tribes Mission group and Powers were in a small gully which apparently hid from them a view of the oncoming flames. As for the men at Powder House, a quarter mile away, they were so taken by the unexpected change, they paid no attention to the New Tribes Missions crew, thinking they had heard the roaring flames and had escaped.

    It was about 10:15 o’clock when Charles Lafferty, fire control forester from Stonyford, got worried and rushed to where the group was still eating. “Get out as fast as you can.” he yelled. Several members of the group said they thought he told them to go east along the ridge contour. Lafferty said however, he had split the group sending some directly to the top of the ridge and the others down the canyon. “I figured,” he said, “they could get into some clearing and out run the flames.” About 10:30, nine of the men climbed to the newly-built bulldozer road atop the ride. They were exhausted, but unharmed although one man was later placed under a doctor’s care. But there was no sign of the other 15.

    Search at Dawn

    Through the night men waited along the fire lines hoping to hear they had somehow reached safety. At dawn, however, hope was abandoned, and the search for the men was started by Supervisor Leon Thomas. At 4:15 o’clock, the first body was found. It was in the bottom of the canyon, about a mile from the point. The other 14 bodies were found about 5:20 o’clock sprawled in an area about 100 yards in diameter, three quarters of the way up the ridge and about three-fourths of a mile from the point. Several of them were lying on one another. A few had tried to dig foxholes, but the hardpan stopped them after they had gone about eight inches. One might have made it, but the tinned rations he carried in the front of his clothing kept most of the body above ground. Most of the bodies were badly burned, especially about the face but friends were able to identify most of them. Safety was far away for them in the direction they fled. Had they stayed at the same altitude, they would have had to go several miles down canyon before they would have been out of the reach of the flames. Their only hope would have been with the nine who escaped. There was but one way out, through the thick brush to the top of the hill, about 200 yards from where they had sat down for a leisurely dinner.

  • Media article:

    Rattlesnake News Photo Rattlesnake News Photo

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Photos, Videos, & Tributes

Rattlesnake Fire Location Rattlesnake Fire Location
Rattlesnake Fire Location Rattlesnake Fire Location

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Contributors to this article: Tom Caves (FS), Larry Creeger (FS) photo credit, John Watt (CDF), Idaho FireChick, Eban A Babb (EAB), Jim Barry (FS), Matt Streck (CDF), John Miller, Rene Vanderhooft, others from CDF (now Cal Fire), the Forest Service and the Glenn County Fire Chiefs' Association in Willows CA.

 

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