The fire began along Highway 166 on a sweltering mid-August day in 1979.
Back then dispatchers did not name fires with the first call, but today the blaze is called the Spanish Ranch Fire.
At first it appeared to be a routine wildland fire, but then the wind shifted. Three firefighters died at the scene when a “tidal wave” of fire overran their position. Though an initial report was hopeful, a fourth man died of his burns almost six months later.
According to a Telegram-Tribune story published Aug. 17, 1979, a Caltrans mower blade hit a rock shortly after 2 p.m. during the heat of the day, sparking the fire. Though the operator tried to stop it, the fire took off.
Today Cal Fire advises that rural mowing be completed before 10 a.m. during the hot months and that mowing be rescheduled during unfavorable weather conditions.
The terrain along the Cuyama River is steep and winds are strong and variable, as was seen during the Alamo Fire.
Since 1979, wildland firefighting has evolved, and this incident changed California standards. Before Spanish Ranch, fire shelters were not standard issue for the California Department of Forestry (now Cal Fire.)
“That became a mandatory piece of equipment,” said Capt. Mike Deleo of the Nipomo Cal Fire/San Luis Obispo County station.
Communication systems have been streamlined as has communication and cooperation between agencies. Weather information today is shared daily and incorporated into fire dispatch assignments. And major incidents are reviewed and lessons shared via improved training.
This incident is now studied by firefighters. After a classroom session, firefighters travel to the scene, walk the ground and listen to recreated radio calls.
“It is a pretty powerful thing,” Deleo said.