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.
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.
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
*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.