15 firefighters died in Mendocino blaze 59 years ago
The Rattlesnake Fire Memorial overlooking Rattlesnake Canyon can be accessed off of Forest Highway 7 on Alder Springs Road (County Road 307).
Crosses in the Mendocino National Forest mark the location of one of the deadliest forest fires in history — and it happened 59 years ago this week.
The Rattlesnake Fire was started on July 9, 1953, by an arsonist on private property within the national forest northwest of Elk Creek in Glenn County.
Actually there were two fires set, and it was the second that proved fatal, and changed how firefighting strategies and training were done.
According to historical sources, the fire was reported in the mid-afternoon and by that evening, it was considered under control.
But with a shift in the wind, the fire re-ignited, and before it would be snuffed out, one forest official and 14 volunteer firefighters — missionaries from the New Tribes Mission — were dead.
The current Mill Fire, which continues to burn in the same general area, started on July 7 near the Mill Valley Campground in western Colusa County.
"The fire was spotted and reported mid-afternoon and by evening, it was considered under control. At about 9 p.m., the wind caused a spot fire north of the road from a burning brand. The plan to bulldoze lines above this fire were not completed as the terrain was too steep for the equipment," states a reference in the book "Fire in the Forest: A History of Forest Fire Control on the National Forests in California 1898-1956. It was written by Robert W. Cermak and published in 2005.
"Then the wind died down and the spot fire became inactive. With the new weather conditions, a firebreak line was built directly around the inactive spot fire successfully. The wind came up again and changed directions which started several spot fires west of the crew. All but one of these new fires were extinguished by the water tanker trucks. The men then rested, had dinner, and were in an area out of sight to the fire front and were unaware that a flare-up was occurring until too late."
What came out of the incident, and lessons that give great meaning to the lives lost, are the many changes to training, safety standards, and a greater awareness on how weather impacts a fire.
Additionally, more and more reliance on technical strategies, not the least of which are helicopters and air tankers, have become standard practices, officials said.
Another fire in the area raged through a variety of recreational areas near Stonyford in 2001, burning 25,000 acres, but no one died in the Trough Fire.