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Incident: Pilitas No 1 Fire (incorrectly labeled "Pelitor Road" in old records)
Date: 7/5/1950
Personnel: 4 lives lost
Age: 
Agency/Organization: military fighting fire for San Luis Obispo Ranger Unit according to CDF fire managers
Position: firefighters

Summary:

Gerald "Jerry" O'Reilly, Ranger & a crew foreman, California Division of Forestry, Sonora, CA
Pvt John P. Smith, Battery A, soldier and assigned as firefighter
Pfc Lawrence R. Morris, Battery B, soldier and assigned as firefighter
Pfc Turley McFarland, Battery A, soldier and assigned as firefighter

The four men were entrapped, burned over and died on the forest fire in the Las Pilitas area east of Santa Margarita, and 12 to 15 mi northeast of San Luis Obispo. When the bodies were discovered at 1430 hrs on July 5, they were burned beyond recognition. One of the CDF firefighters there said dental records were used to make identification.

Jerry O'Reilly was one of eight CDF firefighting supervisors from Sonora who supervised firefighters on the Las Pilitas Fire, burning fiercely on state forest land. The three soldiers were part of the 150-man contingent from the 60th Anti-Aircraft Battalion at Fort Ord, CA. The soldiers were sent to the area on July 5, 1950 in support of state firefighters. The fallen, "a part of a crew building a fire line near the main blaze, were trapped when dry brush flared up behind them. Some of the crew managed to dash to safety through the roaring blaze but the four didn't make it." The conditions and fire were described as follows by an eyewitness: "It was hot weather, windy and it was a fast moving wildfire, travelling southerly. If it wasn’t for Hwy 101 as a break I’m sure it would have crossed and maybe gone down to Hwy 1 north of San Luis Obispo (from accounts of those who were there and media articles, especially The Fort Ord Panorama, July 13, 1950 that provided names of the soldier/firefighters).

 

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Maps

On CA forest land 12 to 15 mi northeast of San Luis Obispo Location map and closeup.

Pilitas Fire- 3 Military and 1 CDF firefighter died Pilitas Fire- 3 Military and 1 CDF firefighter died
Pilitas Fire- 3 Military and 1 CDF firefighter died Pilitas Fire- 3 Military and 1 CDF firefighter died

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Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

Earliest Records:

  • The 1910-1996 Historical Wildland Firefighter Fatalities from NWCG has the same info the CDF firefighter gave us at Always Remember.

    Once you download the pdf, search (hold down ctrl button and s button at the same time); type Pelitor in the search box. Says this:

    • 1950 Pelitor Fire (should be Las Pilitas)
    • San Luis Obispo RU, CA
    • 1 CDF
    • 3 Other
    • Unknown names
    • One CDF firefighter and three soldiers died of burns.
  • The Lessons Learned Center Lookup also has the Pelitor Incident, 1950, but no date, no report and 4 deaths.

    If you search on the Incident name, it comes up as follows:

    • Date: 1/1/1950 (1/1 is default for month and year when exact date is unknown)
    • Location: San Luis Obispo
    • State: California
    • Incident: Pelitor (should be Las Pilitas)
    • Accident: Burn Injury
    • Category: Fire
    • Organization: State/Other
    • Agency: CDF
    • Number of People: 4
    • Shelters Available: Not Applicable
    • Shelters Deployed: Not Applicable
    • Fatalities: 4
    • Injuries: Not Applicable
  • Fort Ord Panorama: July 6, 1950 (2,889 K pdf) Story and pictures of the July 4 military fire assignment in the Santa Cruz Mountains.
  • Fort Ord Panorama: July 13, 1950 (823 K pdf) Story of the soldiers and CDF Forester who were lost near San Luis Obispo.

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Wildlandfire.com Links:

  • Hotlist: from 4/25/12 Always Remember Research

    Personal recollection of Old-n-Gray on the Hotlist got this investigation going: It was July, 1950 somewhere close to the 4th. The Fire was called the Santa Margarette in San Luis Obispo. It started near the town of that name. It had been burning three days before I arrived. Looking at the 1950's Fires Map, it must be the Pilitas #1 (listed in old records as Pelitor), as that was the only wildfire in Ca. that I know of, that burned soldiers. We may have called it Santa Margarita because of the nearby town. We may not have known the actual name. It was 1950 as this was my first season back with CDF, hired on July 1st, assigned to the Bitterwater Station, (now Beaver Dam) in the then San Benito Unit, about July 4th. We were dispatched to the CDF fire camp on this fire a few days later. The fatalities occurred the day before our dispatch. There were 3 or 4 USFS fire camps on this fire, but only one CDF.

    The Pilitas #1 fire footprint is large; there's also a Pilitas #2 and #3.

    The CDF Las Pilitas Fire #1 is the incident according to Norm, a CDF firefighter who was there. The burnover date was July 6, 1950. Scribbled out, there could have been a transcription error from Las Pilitas to Pelitor in the NWCG records.

  • Hotlist: from 8/18/2015 Santa Margarita Fire- July 1950

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Media Articles and Reports

  • Historical newspaper articles: from Ken Kempter (12 K pdf)
  • Description of jurisdiction and location
Las Pilitas Las Pilitas

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Photos, Videos, & Tributes

 

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Contributors to this article: 4711, Old-n-Gray, Skee, FC 180, Mellie, Norm and other CDF firefighters who were there; Ken Kempter provided historical newspaper records and researched the soldiers' names; and thanks to Lisa Crunk, Archivist, DLIFLC, Fort Ord Panorama Newspaper

 

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