Remembering the Honda Canyon Fire

One of the reasons I decided to write a blog is that from my personal perspective there are so many stories that need to be told, retold… and most of all remembered. If ever there was one… this is it.

My days in the Air Force and especially those at California’s Vandenberg Air Force Base were among the best days of my life. My assignment there changed my life in ways I never imagined. It’s where my first child, a son, was born and where he works today. I really loved Vandenberg and the beautiful surrounding area of central California just an hour north of picturesque Santa Barbara and along the Pacific coast. I was assigned to the 4392nd Civil Engineering Squadron at the base throughout most of my career as an Air Force firefighter between 1972 and 1975. To serve in that department with a Top Secret security clearance afforded me a truly unique experience and perspective.

Among our duties were combating the dangerous wildfires on the rugged terrain of South Vandenberg. Not only did these fires have their inherent dangers but they were unquestionably the hardest and dirtiest work a firefighter could find himself involved in. While I did experience my fair share of that kind of work most of my time on the base was spent at the crash station, known as Fire Station 1 on the base flight-line.

Over the years, as I grew in experience and rank my responsibilities also expanded. Along the way I came to know our department Chief Billy Bell. Oklahoma-born Bell joined the Army when he was 15 but when it was learned six months later he was too young he was honorably discharged. Two years later he joined the Air Force at 17 and served for 23 years before retiring. Recipient of the Airman’s Medal* for heroism he came to Vandenberg as a civilian to oversee the department’s operations. After becoming a dispatcher in the department Control Center, I began to have daily contact and talked with Chief Bell throughout the day as he was updated about our operations. Among the dispatcher’s responsibilities was to know his whereabouts so we could contact him within a moment’s notice if the need arose.

Chief Billy Bell

Chief Billy Bell in the 1970s

Vandenberg, the third largest Air Force base in the country, has seven fire stations spread among it’s 98-thousand acres. It must have been a huge responsibility for the Chief but despite it all he was easy-going, and approachable, always friendly and outgoing with those that served with him

In the same capacity I would work with Gene Cooper when he would occasionally fill-in for the regular assistant chief for one of the two shifts that kept the department manned. Mr. Cooper, also a civilian, was the station chief at one of the structural fire stations I was assigned to where he was my supervisor. Cooper was quiet and reserved, a small man in stature but I respected his mild-mannered way of supervision and his friendly smile. I always looked forward to seeing and visiting with both Chief Bell and Mr. Cooper.

In early December of 1975, as my enlistment was ending I prepared to leave the Air Force and California for college in Utah. I visited with Mr. Cooper at Fire Station 2 where he was station chief. A few days later I stopped in and visited with Chief Bell at his office. With both it was just to say ‘goodbye’ and to thank them for the memories we had shared together. I know they appreciated that I took the time to do that, which I guess was a rare occurrence.

Several weeks earlier Chief Bell encouraged me to apply for one of four civilian firefighter jobs available at various California bases. All I needed to do was take the Civil Service exam he explained, and I’d be a shoo-in to a good job. Had I taken the Chief’s advice, my life would have been dramatically different. However I had long made up my mind and I chose to enroll in college and return to work in broadcasting, which had been my ambition since I was a young teenager. In hindsight that old sage advice to further one’s education may not have been the best for me, but never-the-less that was my decision.

That December afternoon in the Chief’s office we visited for fifteen minutes or so and shared our thoughts about the future before shaking hands and bidding one another goodbye. I probably had no idea when I would get back to Vandenberg, but with friends and family there at the time, I’m sure I promised Mr. Cooper and Chief Bell that I’d see them again. Within days I started a new life in Utah.

Two years later on December 20, 1977 (34-years ago today) I was home watching television. One of the lead stories on the news that night was the tragic deaths of three people who were killed when fire and wind turned into a devastating firestorm that become known as the Honda Canyon Fire. Started by a downed power line the blaze was at my old home at Vandenberg. I was stunned when both Chief Bell and Mr. Cooper were named as two of its victims. Also killed were the base commander Colonel Joseph Turner. A retired Navy Chief Petty Officer, bulldozer operator Clarence McCauley, was trapped in the fire and died a few days later from his injuries. It was a tragic end to a long and brutal fire season and the worse disaster in Vandenberg history.

To say the least I was immensely saddened about the tragic loss of all these good men. Since then I have often thought about Chief Bell and Mr. Cooper and the fond memories I had for both of them. Both, gone too soon. All these years have not dampened my sense of loss, nor my memories of them.

Nearly 33 years after the tragedy in November of last year I finally acted on something I’d always wanted to do. I combined my investigative powers with those of the Internet and attempted to track down Chief Bell’s widow. I didn’t expect much success at the beginning — not knowing her first name or whether she was still alive. It had been a long time and possibly she had long ago remarried and was no longer identified with the Bell name. But by a stroke of luck a couple of things amazingly fell into place and I found Helen Bell who it turns out lives not far away from me in Spokane, Washington. We exchanged some emails and I was able to relate some of my memories about her husband. Their youngest daughter Dana, who was 15 when her father was killed, also wrote me a touching note, grateful “for keeping his memory alive”, which brought all of this — including the purpose for starting and maintaining my blog — into full perspective.

Quite a bit can be found about the Honda Canyon fire on the Internet, and a book was written about the tragedy, but little about the men who lost their lives that day. There’s a plaque at Vandenberg’s Fire Station 2. It’s part of a memorial commemorating the memory of the men killed in the Honda Canyon Fire. On it are found these words:

Through blurred eyes we find the strength and courage to soar beyond the moment.
We look to the future knowing we can never forget the past.

Chief Billy Bell was 44 years old when he was killed. Last July he would have celebrated his 78th birthday.

Chief Bell as I Remember Him Best

This post is the culmination of all that has been stored-up within me for these many years. I have but one regret now, and that is that Chief Bell’s son Bill Jr. didn’t get to read this. He had a heart attack and died thirty years and three days after his father. Both are buried side-by-side at the Santa Maria, California Cemetery. Since Bill Jr’s death his company has held the annual Billy Joe Bell, Jr. Memorial Golf Tournament. Employees from San Diego to San Francisco participate and as his mother Helen told me: “It is good to know that he was as well thought of as his father.”

The other Victims of the Honda Canyon Fire

Victims of the Honda Canyon Fire

(L to R) Clarence McCauley, Col. Joseph Turner, Gene Cooper

*The Airman’s Medal is awarded to those who distinguish themselves by heroic actions, usually at the voluntary risk of life, but not involving actual combat.

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18 comments on “Remembering the Honda Canyon Fire

  1. An excellent post and a beautiful tribute to those who lost their lives in this tragedy.

  2. American Heros are always good to know about. I thank you for your sharing this important event and your memories.

  3. Denise Fall says:

    Rick,

    I just want to thank you for the beautiful article about my Dad, Bill Bell.

    It’s nice to know that he had an impact on the lives of other people, and not just his family.

    So from the bottom of my heart, thank you so much for remembering my father.

    • Rick Gleason says:

      Denise,

      So good to hear from you and thank you for your comment.

      It was a great blessing to write about my memories of those days with your father and as I wrote… a story that needed to be told.

      All my best to you and your family.

  4. Joe Valencia says:

    Thanks for this story of these brave men. I work right where it happened on South Vanbenberg and I was there back in 77′ on the fireline where it all happend. Needles to say…every December 20-21st I reflect back on that time and all the changes since.

  5. bonkasaurus says:

    Great post! your writing is such an enjoyment to read. I like how you told this story and connected it to your own life.

    -Bianca at http://theinbetweengirls.wordpress.com/

  6. Mike Anderson says:

    Gene Cooper was my grandfather, he married my grandmother Editha in 1969. I was glad to stumble across this site, I know so little about grandpa Gene, since i lived in Nebraska and was only 13 when he died.

    My grandma recently passed away, 3/13/2012, so I have been thinking a lot about them both. I was very surprised and honored to meet three men at Grandma’s memorial service that worked with Gene, to me that says a lot about him, for them to attend over 34 years after his passing.

    If you have any stories about my grandpa, please get ahold of me to share them.

    Mike Anderson

    • Rick Gleason says:

      Great to hear from you Mike.

      I honestly don’t recall much more about your grandfather than what I’ve written.

      I recall he was a very nice man, a good and fair man to work for and far too young to die when he did. Sorry that I can’t add more. Have you contacted any of the people that attended your grandmother’s funeral? I’m sure they could help you know more about him.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Rick

  7. Dave Audley says:

    I was a Military firefighter at Vandenberg during the fire of 1977, I was the firefighter pictured on the back of the tanker with the stretched lines, The tanker #21 was from the North side Minute Man Area, I worked stations on both South and North Side, as well as the alarm room, Gene Cooper was my Assistant Chief, Great Guy, I remember the belt buckle he used to wear, had his initials on it, One of the identifiers when he was found. Nice article, brought back some memories some good some bad,

    • Rick Gleason says:

      Dave,

      Thank you so much for your comments. I’m glad you found my story.

      I believe you probably meant “South” Vandenberg where the missile launch sites and facilities were located. I too was assigned to that side of the base on several occasions. I may have even driven Tanker 21!

      I can’t recall but I believe it was at Station 4 out in the middle of no-where, where I had regular duty for several months and spent many hours on standby for various missile launches. I also worked at the station just inside the South gate for a short time. It’s been a long time so my memory is a little hazy on the station numbers and locations. I’m sure you knew Ron Hacker in the Alarm Room at Station 1. I spoke to Ron quite a few years ago. (It’s time to catch up!)

      Thanks again Dave for sharing your thoughts and memories. It’s greatly appreciated.

  8. Rick Gleason says:

    NOTE: The following comment was posted to my “About the Writer” page on June 20, 2013 and re-posted here.
    ===

    Rick, thanks for your blog about the four men that died while fighting the Honda Canyon fire at Vandenberg AFB. As a former AF brat that lived at the base from ’63 to ’68, I found your blog a fine tribute to these men.

    While living at the base, I often visited the fire stations with my Dad. Dad was an NCO who worked at SLC-5 but would go out to the fire stations and cut the firemens’ hair for $1.00 a head, once or twice a month. I remember the firemen being very kind to me during those visits. My Dad says to this day, his best duty was at Vandenberg.

    In September of ’68 my Dad was transfered back to MAC and he spent a year in Vietnam. From there it was on to McChord AFB, WA. I’ve been back to Vandenberg several times over the years. Our house on Elm street was demolished in 2010.

    Best Regards

    Danny Jones

    • Rick Gleason says:

      Danny,

      Thank you so much for your kind comments. I very much appreciate it and am pleased that my tribute to those men has touched so many.

      I too enjoyed my time at Vandenberg where my first child was born and where he now works on-base in radar. Those were great years that I’ve come to appreciate so much more now that I’m older.

      Thanks to your father for his long service. I live on the east side of Seattle, not that far from McChord, now known as Joint Base Lewis-McChord.

      Thanks for your visit and all the best! I hope you’ll come again.

  9. Marty Given says:

    Rick, you bring back a lot off memories. My father Orval (Joe) Given worked at the tracking station and crossed trained to the fire department as assistant fire chief on the Air Force side, so he would not have to relocate and move us around. I remember that day well, listened to all the radio chatter on the scanner in our kitchen. We lived on Oceanview Ave. I was 13 at the time and remember all the smoke from the south base area blowing high in the air.

    I can remember going to work with my
    dad and meeting Chief Bell in his office, my father had great respect for him and still speaks of him to this day when we think about that day. What a great place to grow up, spent fourteen years there.

    Spent many days with my father at the different stations during his training and subsequent Assistant Chief days. Remember a great spaghetti dinner with all the firefighters at station 3 right across from the old main office where the Chiefs and secretaries worked.

    Thanks for the memories!!

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