San Diego Historical Society photo
10th Cavalry “Buffalo Soldiers,” 1938. Corporal LeRoy Carter, 28, became separated from the crew. Instead of racing to the burn area, the Kansas City native tried to outrun the fire up a steep, manzanita-thick slope.
I didn’t see the forest ranger who got trapped with the Marines,” recalled Colonel William Hastie, whose 10th Cavalry helped rescue burn victims from the Hauser Canyon Fire of 1943. “I heard he felt terribly. But no person who has ever fought treacherous brush fires could place blame on him. They can burn quicker along the ground than a man can run.”
The ranger was Buel Hunt. In the official report for the Hauser Canyon tragedy, he took much of the blame. The 34-year-old from Linda Vista was in charge, he said in an interview, of “100 untrained Marines.” Using shovels, brush hooks, and Pulaskis, they were cutting a line away from the main fire, in a tight canyon draw. When Santa Ana winds died — around 2:00 p.m., October 2 — someone set a backfire. The two fires joined, exploding like a bomb. Led by a tongue of flame licking ahead of the blaze, the white-hot conflagration rose 30 feet, flashed over a ridge and across the draw, and hit the crews like a blowtorch.
It charred Hunt’s hands and legs, seared his hair and face. But given the severity of other victims, medics on the scene called his injuries minor.
Hastie and soldiers from the 10th Cavalry evacuated casualties. As the convoy of trucks and horse trailers wound its way seven miles east to Campo, Hunt passed out from shock. Shortly after he awoke in Camp Lockett Hospital, the man next to him died, “lungs burned.”
The fire wasn’t done. When the blow- up occurred on Saturday, approximately 240 men fought the blaze. On Sunday, October 3, 622 men were mobilized. In the 1940s, fire lines were measured in “chains,” one every 66 feet (a mile equals 80 chains). Saturday’s crews dug 75 chains. When the fire was controlled the following Wednesday, it had required 2340.
On Sunday at 4:30 a.m., Hastie and the 10th Cav, the famous African-American “Buffalo Soldiers,” went back to Hauser Canyon, into grayish-orange clouds thousands of feet high.
There aren’t many places in the county that look today the way they did 60 years ago. Hauser Canyon lies 45 miles east of San Diego, between Morena and Barrett Dams. Massive Morena Butte watches over it like a wizened Old Testament patriarch. Except for hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail and occasional clusters of undocumented migrants, Hauser’s the same empty brown gash of wilderness it was in ’43.
“It’s not like a movie canyon, all nice and wide,” says Roger Challberg, president of the Mountain Empire Historical Society. “It’s so tight in there, little clearings and side draws going this way and that...such steep terrain. When nature is against you, in a place like that, fire has all the advantages.”
Without wind, on level ground, fires grow at a walking pace. They move faster up slopes, because they preheat the fuel in front of them. Add wind, which makes them burn hotter, to steep slopes, and they can flash like lightning. John Maclean: “Every firefighter knows the rule: Never let a fire get below you on a mountain. Only bears and fires, not firefighters, can run uphill faster than down.”
Unlike the Marines the day before, who were trainees at Camp Pine Valley, Hastie’s soldiers were a fixed, tactical organization, part of a division at Camp Lockett. Though they didn’t like the duty, they had fought several fires and, as a line unit, had an established chain of command. Years later, Hastie confessed, “I hate to admit this, but all this firefighting we did taught us a lot about leadership, logistics, and working under stress and fatigue.”
Along with their equipment and a one-gallon canteen, many in the three 25-man crews had walkie-talkies. The cavalry soldiers may have fought in riding britches, which they wore almost exclusively.
Their task was to “cold trail” the eastern edge of the burn area. They scraped a fire-control line and looked for spots that could flare up, especially under hot white ashes. Amid ovenlike conditions in the canyon, they separated burned from unburned material, throwing “hot stuff ” into the burned area, unburned outside They cleared brush from under scorched trees — called “snags” — and felled those close to the edge. Some held the back of an ungloved hand three to four inches above the ground, feeling for heat. And since the fire still raged nearby, they tried to keep “one foot in the black,” staying as close as possible to an already burned area.
“Nasty work,” recalled Hastie, who also remembered thickets of manzanita “difficult to travel through and a real torch when on fire” and dry, wirelike brush on the rocky slopes where the fire hadn’t reached.
On Saturday, the fire blew up in a draw near Cottonwood Creek (just north of the Marine Memorial). On Sunday, at 10:30 a.m., crews from the 10th and 28th Cav regiments were cutting a line south of the creek, along the dusty truck trail. Some say the main fire jumped the waterway. The 10th Cav’s Company Morning Report says someone set a backfire on a grassy hill near a 25-man crew. If so, it was the second wind- aided,“accidental” backfire in two days, and the second to take human life.
The blaze crackled across dry grass, churning uphill like a flood.
“She’s coming!” shouted a soldier.
“Into the black!” yelled Lt. Stiles Gaffney, ushering his platoon toward an already charred area as the flames advanced. The men entered the relative safety of the scorched terrain, though cinders burned their knee-length riding boots.
Corporal LeRoy Carter, 28, became separated from the crew. Instead of racing to the burn area, the Kansas City native tried to outrun the fire up a steep, manzanita-thick slope.
Panic? Maybe not. Carter was about to be engulfed. A power-sprint straight uphill, fueled by the will to live, may have felt like the rational choice — until, in a jolt of terror, he saw he couldn’t make it. Sheets of flame consumed him.
The coroner’s report says Carter died of “shock due to third-degree burns, severe.”
Hershel Higgins, a bulldozer operator on the scene, said they found Carter’s smoldering body lying “in the burnt, three feet from living brush.”
Carter became Hauser’s 11th fatality. Over a five-day period, the fire ravaged 16,000 acres. The cause, said Camp Lockett’s Brigadier General Thoburn K. Brown, was “gunnery practice.” A bullet — a tracer, most likely — ignited a brush area. Aided by the first rain in weeks, the fire ceased Wednesday, October 6. Between 72 and 85 were injured, at least 12 critically, and 11 men died: 9 Marines, Corporal Carter, and a civilian whose name, to this day, remains unknown.
On October 8 an investigation began that established blame for the casualties. The Hauser Canyon Fire happened six decades ago. Although that’s a long time to reconsider an event, some cold-trailing is in order.
Carter panicked, the official report said. “The fatality resulted from the trooper’s own disobedience of orders given him by superior officers.” But Carter got separated from his crew, eyewitnesses say, and may not have heard the orders. He simply ran to the nearest safety. Disobedience, attested by junior officers on the scene, absolves higher ups — and whoever set the backfire.
Hunt took most of the blame, even though the report acknowledges an anomaly: “The change in fire behavior in crossing the mouth of the gulch was, while not unique, decidedly unusual.” The fire spread downhill quickly, which is rare; it also shifted from the front to a flank. All are changes “many fire leaders of substantial experience have never encountered in practice.”
Though he’d worked 11 years in the forestry service, and even though the sudden wind-shift whipped the fire along unforeseen angles, the report says Hunt lacked experience and acted “imprudently.” By not recognizing the danger and calling a retreat sooner, he placed his crew in harm’s way.
Roger Challberg: “People look back and ask: what did we do wrong, what did we do right? But it wouldn’t matter whose crew was there, given the location.
“I’ve learned not to second-guess. I’ve seen fires in high winds: flames leap an eight-lane freeway. [Fire-]breaks are normally 100 feet. An eight-lane freeway. That’s concrete. And vvvvvt — right across, ka-poof! You could have the finest radios, finest fire departments, trucks, everything...With ripe conditions like in ’43 — and today — nothing’ll stop a fire.”
Hunt was second in command. “One of the favorite scapegoats in history,” writes Norman Maclean, is “the ‘second guy.’” In an interview 40 years later, Hunt said friends told him he got “a dirty deal on that review.”
The person in command, Jack Ewing, received a mild hand-slap for “overappraising” Hunt’s abilities and for not checking Hunt’s “indirect” fire-break (which may have been too close, say Hastie and Gunner Willard Wright). At no point does the report mention that Ewing, miles from the scene at the time, forgot he had Marines in that draw when he ordered a backfire.
The report concludes: “Disciplinary action directed at Hunt or his immediate superior would be, in effect, a denial that the proved process of producing qualified fire control leadership is essentially correct and necessary. The Board recommends that no formal disciplinary action be taken.”
To admit mistakes, in other, less-convoluted words, would admit that the training process had flaws.
On July 9, 1953, ten years after the Hauser tragedy, Ewing was boss of the Rattlesnake Fire in Mendocino National Forest. He forgot he had a crew, 23 local missionaries and a ranger, down in Powderhouse Canyon. At around 10:15 p.m., a bizarre wind- shift to Santa Ana-like conditions turned the blaze downhill. Spot-fires, caused by fireballs igniting in the tall grass, trapped the men. “No one,” writes John Maclean, “expected a major downslope wind after dark in this part of Northern California.” As at Hauser, the change in fire behavior was “unusual.”
But this time, writes Maclean, Ewing had “a redemptive moment. The fire had fooled everyone. Ewing, the fire boss, made the same mistakes he had made on the Hauser Creek fire, forgetting a crew and failing to anticipate a wind shift. But when he realized the danger on the Rattlesnake Fire, he put his life at stake and ran toward the flames to help the survivors escape.”
Between 1910 and 1957, there were seven “tragedy fires,” in which ten or more died, in the U.S. Two — the Hauser Canyon Fire of 1943 and the 11-fatality Inaja Fire of 1956 — were in San Diego County. In 1957 a task force studied tragedy fires and devised the Ten Standard Fire Orders: a thorough reevaluation, writes Stephen J. Pyne, “of the whole state of the art, from research to training to protective clothing.
Pyne: “In the old days it was enough, in the words of one safety publication, to ‘stay with your foreman’ if there was danger: ‘he has been to many fires and is still alive.’ That was no longer good enough with organized district and interregional crews."
Newspaper headlines during the first week of October 1943, show a world at war: “NAZI-TRAPPED JEWS REPORTED SUICIDES,” “ALLIED FIFTH ARMY TAKES VITAL TOWN OF BENEVENTO,” “GOEBBELS WARNS, REASSURES NAZIS,” “MAJOR BLAZES CUT WIDE PATH THROUGH WATERSHED,” the latter referring to the Hauser Fire. Though the worst up to that time in San Diego County, the fire soon vanished from newspaper pages, and then from memory.
On November 20, 1943, the Marine Second Division fought one of the blood- iest battles of World War II at Tarawa. Assault boats landed at low tide far from shore. Enemy gunfire pinned down Marines in waist-high water. Over 1000 died before they took the Japanese-held airstrip at Betio.
John Loop, 35 years a firefighter for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection: “The horrors of Tarawa, about six weeks after the Hauser Canyon Fire, turned San Diego’s attention away from home and back to the war. In time, that hellish fire and the men who fought and the men who died became all but forgotten.”
- Board of Review Report of Casualties & Injuries of U.S. Marine Corps Men on Hauser Creek Fire, Cleveland National Forest, October 2, 1943
- Challberg, Roger, president of Mountain Empire Historical Society, interview
- Hunt, Buel, interviewed by John Loop, 1994
- L., Ret. Colonel William, letters to Jim Hinds
- Loop, John, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, retired, interview
- Maclean, John, Fire on the Mountain (New York, 1999); Fire and Ashes (New York, 2003)
- Maclean, Norman, Young Men and Fire (University of Chicago Press, 1992)
- Pyne, Stephen J., Fire in America: A Cultural History of Wildland and Rural Fire (Princeton, 1982)
- Unger, Zac, Working Fire: The Making of an Accidental Fireman (New York, 2004)
- Roger Challberg: “Fire will do unusual things, and those are the things that will kill you.”
- Norman Maclean: “Coming to recognize you are wrong is like coming to recognize you are sick.
- You feel bad before you admit you have any of the symptoms and certainly long before you are willing to take your medicine.”
- Zac Unger: “This is perhaps the hardest thing to learn, that you can never learn everything you need to know for every situation, that a blueprint for putting out a fire is an imaginary construct.