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Monument to honor 4 firefighters killed in 1979 wildfire on Hwy. 166

Forest Service firefighter Charlie Roberson watches as a helicopter carries away the bodies of three firefighters killed during brush fire east of Nipomo on Highway 166.
Forest Service firefighter Charlie Roberson watches as a helicopter carries away the bodies of three firefighters killed during brush fire east of Nipomo on Highway 166. Telegram-Tribune

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.

A monument remembering the four firefighters will be unveiled along the highway this month. It is hoped that this will be the first of several planned memorials throughout the county placed at the scene of fatal incidents. For more information or to donate, call the Nipomo Cal Fire/San Luis Obispo County station at 805-929-3911.

The heartbreaking Telegram-Tribune story was written by Linda Gentry on Aug. 16, 1979:

Firemen killed: Wind shift leaves 3 dead, 1 hurt

Three firefighters were killed and another critically burned Wednesday when the fire they were battling turned with the wind and surrounded them, according to the California Department of Forestry.

Fire Capt. Edwin M. Marty, 35, of Nipomo and two members of his engine crew — Ron T. Lorant, 22, Long Beach, and Steve Manley, 21, Goleta — were killed between 4:30 and 5 p.m. when the fire on Highway 166 about 30 miles east of Nipomo overran them, said Jim Lee, a forestry spokesman.

Deputy Coroner Mike Sheridan said today that Lorant and Manley, second-year seasonal firefighters, were burned beyond recognition. Funeral arrangements for the three are pending at Sunset Chapel in Grover City.

Meanwhile, Scott Cox, 25, of Goleta was listed in critical, but stable condition today at Sherman Oaks Community Hospital, Lee said.

He said Cox, a first-year firefighter, managed to run through the flames to safety.

One firefighter at the scene said the grass and brush on the steep ridge where the engine crew was working “went up just like gasoline.”

Fire Boss Lew Killion said the four men were working behind a bulldozer that was cutting a line around the fire when the wind changed.

“We had shifting winds that would change 180 degrees,” Killion said. “That’s what caused this problem up here — a sudden shift of the wind.”

As Killion talked, a helicopter landed on the blackened ridge to take the bodies. Firefighters in the makeshift command post watched silently, many with tears in their eyes.

One man at the scene said he heard a radio message that it was “lookin’ pretty good” just before the men were trapped.

“The only thing I can tell you for sure is the wind went from zero to 40 miles an hour in nuthin’,” he said.

Sheridan said the three fighters didn’t have a chance to escape the flames. “The only thing they could do was stand there and watch it come … like waiting for a tidal wave.”

Lee, a Santa Barbara County fireman who was manning a fire information telephone in San Luis Obispo today, said the fire, which has burned about 930 acres of grass and brush, was contained early today.

He said firefighters from San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties and the U.S. Forest Service were battling the fire that was reported shortly after 2 p.m. Wednesday. He said the cause is under investigation, but arson is not suspected at this time.

Marty, a 19-year veteran of the Forestry Department, came to San Luis Obispo County in May 1974 from Shasta County. A friend said he had been hoping to transfer back to Shasta County, where his mother lives.

Donations of blood in Cox’s name are being sought, State Forest Ranger Jim Marcio said today.

Marcio said Cox is likely to survive unless unexpected complications set in.

If he makes it, Cox will need extensive skin graft surgery, a procedure that requires large amounts of blood, Marcio said.

The blood can be given at the Tri-Counties Blood Bank.

Gifts of flowers and plants are discouraged, Marcio said, because they are not allowed inside the burn center, but gifts of money can be made to the center.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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