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Firestorm '77 The True Story of the Honda Canyon Fire A Documentary Film

The emotional story of a wind-driven wildfire on a California Air Force Base in 1977 that transformed into a power struggle between military command and civilian firefighters resulting in tragic loss of life and, for survivors, a lifetime of recurring trauma.

Director

Christopher Hite

Hite is currently an Associate Professor of Film & Video at Allan Hancock College, in Santa Maria CA. He started as a cinematographer and editor in 1996 and has since worked on hundreds of industrials, documentaries and commercials. He has directed eight films that have appeared at more than twenty-five national and international film festivals including Scottsdale International Film Fest, Cambofest in Phnom Pehn Cambodia, CineKid in the Netherlands, and the BBC Big Screen in Manchester, England. His last documentary, Ghosts in the Mountains, won the Gold Medal in the International Competition at the Wasaga Beach Film Festival Canada, the Best Appalachian Short at the Queen City Film Fest, Maryland, and Best Camera at the Star Doc Film Fest in Los Angeles. Chris was an animator for six seasons of Smart Start Kids, a children’s educational program produced by WRAL in Raleigh, NC. The show won an Emmy Award in 2005. Chris has written for Super-8 Today Magazine and presented papers at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies conference in Atlanta. His short screenplays have won awards at the LA Sports Film Festival and the Action on Film Festival. He holds a BA in Film/Video Production from Pennsylvania State University and an MFA in Screenwriting and Film Studies from Hollins University, Roanoke,VA.

Director's Statement

What drew me to the story of Firestorm ’77 was the raw, unfiltered experience of the participants. It wasn’t the glamorized, heroic depiction of fire fighters as born out in grand Hollywood epics. Many who fought this fire had no training whatsoever and were placed in situations of grave danger without no tools and no discussion.

Firestorm ’77 is a cautionary reminder of what can go wrong when ego, power, and fear commingle at the wrong time at the highest levels of decision making. As fire season has become longer, deadlier, and larger in much of the United States, the need for coherent planning, proper resources, and the patience and willingness to listen to those who face the fire is paramount.

It is my hope that Firestorm ’77 will serve as a reminder that as we face an uncertain future in regards to climate fueled fire challenges, that much can be gleaned from the past by those who stood before the ultimate trial.

The 1977 Honda Canyon Fire

A combination of hurricane-force winds and the snapping of an electrical pole starts the Honda Canyon Fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, early in the morning of December 20, 1977. Over a thousand people consisting of professional firemen and military personnel fight the fire. Outlier winds would increase to over a hundred miles per hour, making the firefight almost impossible. Four fatalities and sixty-five injuries result. Almost ten thousand acres burn, resulting in significant damage to the military installation infrastructure. Ironically and fortuitously, the fire will be out, a little more than 30 hours later, due to an incoming Pacific rain storm.

The story is introduced by showing December, 1977, major television network news clips, Air Force archival film clips, and archival stills. The introduction is followed with interviews with Santa Barbara County Firefighters and Air Force firefighters who were directly involved in the firefight. Each tells their story in stoic terms. Each talks of sacrifices, bravery, fear and loss. With their words and their faces, they tell the story dramatically and in such a way, the viewer feels their heartache.

The interviews are conducted against a black background with only a key light and fill. They are simple, sane and stable from a visual perspective—a deep contrast to the images of flame enrobed ridges and valleys, burnt vehicles, burned out buildings, and panicked first responders rushing to battle the impossible. The simple interview visualization allows the audience to immerse in the intense story of desperation and fear that unfolds before them.

The archival footage provides context as newscasters mention dates, locations, conditions. This footage is crucial as it is our only visual window into that time and place. Aerial footage provides a glimpse into the scope of the destruction and the on-the-ground chaos that is punctuated by a debris laden, wind scorched landscape. Sound springs alive in the form of roaring flames, burning earth, vehicles, and structures. The eerie radio transmissions of men surrounded by flames allows for the stark reality and gravity of the situation to resolve.

Frequently Asked Questions:

Why create a documentary about 1977 Honda Canyon Fire?

Within a few hours, the fire sweeps down Honda Canyon and take the lives of the Base Commander and two Fire Chiefs. As a result of their deaths, the entire Emergency Response system breaks down and chaos ensues. Front line personnel are left to their own device to fight a fire that cannot be put out. Firefighters soon are forced to make split-second decisions that will remain with them, for their entire lives. They will continually ask themselves: “If I could just go back in time and do that differently …”. Here is a comment from one of the interviewers that sums it up perfectly: "I have lost many of my friends on the job. I spent 30+ years fighting brush fire. I have been overrun more times than I'd like. But the one fire that I can't shake from my dreams was Vandenberg. Ask my wife, a couple times a year it gets me usually in my sleep or sometimes something heard or said will trigger a reaction."

What is at stake?

Similarly, here is a recent post from our own Facebook Page: “I was on that fire also. Remember when we were on a bus and that fire came across the dirt road we were on. The bus driver had to back up to keep the fire from getting the bus. It was so bad and the people who lost their lives on that fire. I will never forget it.” The bottom line is there are psychological costs when people confront catastrophic fires. Our hope is that the viewing of this documentary will bring about discussion and bring help for those in the past and the present who are specifically impacted by wild land fires.

Cast

Joseph N. Valencia. Reserve Fireman, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

At 19 years old, Valencia is part of the Santa Barbara County Strike Team that arrived on scene at the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire. Valencia was involved in two fire overruns and on two rescues. That night, he fought the fire on Tranquillion Ridge and at Space Launch Complex Six.

Partner-producer-technical consultant to Augmentee Films and Firestorm '77: The Honda Canyon Fire, and author, Beyond Tranquillon Ridge--December 20-21, 1977--The Climatic Ending to a California Fire Season, upon which the documentary is adapted.

Dennis R. Ford. Airman First Class/Augmentee Vandenberg AFB

At 20 years old, with a pair of leather gloves, a single flat-head shovel and no training, Ford was ordered to fight the fire as an Augmentee, positioned for the next 12-15 hours at Honda Canyon, just below Honda Canyon Ridge.

Partner, Augmentee Films, Executive Producer-Associate Editor-Screenwriter, FireStorm ‘77: The Honda Canyon Fire.

Tom Gooch, Civilian Firefighter Vandenberg Fire Department

At 25 years old, Gooch was part of the fire suppression effort at Space Launch Complex Four where he engaged the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire, rendered aid and survived a fire overrun of his 1500-gallon water tanker.

Ron Fink. Master Sergeant, Vandenberg Fire Department

One of the first individuals to respond to the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire. As lookout, his warnings of the impending conflagration were likely lost to the pitch of high winds and radio static. As highest-ranking on-scene Vandenberg Fire Department official following the tragic deaths in the fire of the two fire chiefs, Fink experienced a number of conflicts with senior military officers.

William (Bill) Bielitzer. Captain, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Put himself in direct peril with fire swirling all around, to rescue Santa Barbara County Fire Department Battalion Chief Donald Perry and several others. Valencia, in his book, Beyond Tranquillon Ridge-- December 20-21,1977--The Climatic End- ing to a California Fire Season, called the effort, "...the most courageous act I saw at the [1977 Honda canyon] fire...it was a true act of courage."

Mike Holmes. Technical Sergeant, Vandenberg Fire Department

Among the first firefighters at the origin of the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire, Holmes quick and common-sense approach was believed to have saved the lives of many young augmentees--military men assigned to the fire fight.

Stan Long, Airman Basic, Augmentee, Vandenberg AFB

In the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire fight, Long was a Dispatch Center phone-operator during the day, and Augmentee directly fighting the fire at night. Long vividly described the moments when Dispatch Center staff learned the identities of the four fatalities--people whom they all knew and respected.

Paul Hill. Airman First Class, Vandenberg Fire Department

Due to chaos and failure to adapt to extreme wildfire and wind conditions on the ground at the front line of the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire, Augmentee Hill was eventually reassigned to Santa Barbara City Fire Department to help protect Space Launch Complex (SLC) Three.

Marvin Moneymaker. Civilian Firefighter, Vandenberg Fire Department

Among the first individuals to be become entrapped by the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire. Moneymaker and another fireman survived by outrunning the fire as it moved up the hill they were assigned to protect.

Mike Alt. Civilian Firefighter, Vandenberg Fire Department

Rendered first-aid to a fellow fireman as the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire swept over their fire engine. Later, Alt himself was heroically saved by two USAF photographers after Alt became unconscious and burned by the fire.

Donald Perry, Battalion Chief, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

At the front of the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire along with the Vandenberg AFB Base Commander and two other USAF Fire Department Fire Chiefs. All attempt to out-run the fire in their respective vehicles. Perry, along with three other individuals in his sedan, ultimately survived hundreds of feet of horizontal fire plummeting the sedan. tragically, the Base commander and two fire chiefs did not survive

Joe Lindaman. Hot Shots Supervisor, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

Entrapped and overrun in Chief Perry's vehicle by the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire, and considered the likely consequences should one of the other occupants open their sedan door at that moment. This important lesson learned: in a wildland firefight, one's own survival may very well rest, and often, on the actions of others.

Ed McGready. Battalion Chief, Santa Barbara County Fire Department

McGready witnessed the Air Force General and top Fire Chiefs, from Vandenberg and Santa Barbara County, heatedly discussing the command and control strategies for the fire. A second incident occurred later in the night. Air Force officials with weapons drawn strongly implied that McCready and his Fire Division should leave the scene of the fire.

John Feazelle, Operator, SantaBarbara County Fire Department

Escaped the conflagration of the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire by stationing his bulldozer (equipped without an over-head cab) in an area covered by ice plant. Feazelle also describes in vivid detail the futility of their trying to create firebreaks to stop the raging wildfire much later in the day.

Brandon Paige. Captain, Santa Barbara City Fire Department

Fights fires now--more than a generation post-1977 Honda Canyon Fire. Assisted the researching of Valencia's book, Beyond Tranquillon Ridge--December 20-21, 1977--The Climatic Ending to a California Fire Season. Interest in the 1977 fire today is the further development of lessons learned, improving wildfire fighting strategies, techniques, weapons, and equipment, and the advancement of fire training and personnel--for a safer fire community and response today and tomorrow.

Mark Smith. Assistant Fire Chief, Vandenberg Fire Department

Came to fire service after the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire, Progressed through the ranks at Vandenberg Fire from Hot Shot to his current position. Smith was Incident Commander on the 2016 Canyon Fire that had similar treacherous conditions including very high winds. Knowing the experience of, and important lessons learned in the Honda Canyon Fire, Smith was able to make decisions that effectively addresssed the Canyon Fire, saved lives and property.

Melanie (Koolkanian) Bedwell. Reporter, KSBY - TV, NBC Affiliate, San Luis Obispo

On December 20, 1977, positioned in front of a charred vehicle, Bedwell was a front line, first-hand witness to the flames and smoke of the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire, along with the pungent odor of freshly burnt ash, metal and rubber. Hand-carried her story and raw video footage back to her station, where it was reported to view- ers that same evening.

Technical Production Details

Running Time: 54 Minutes

Aspect Ratio: 16:9

Sound Quality: Stereo 48gHz

Shooting Format: Digital Video, 23.98 fps

Year of Production: 2020

Christopher Hite: Director Of Photography & Film Editor

Dennis R. Ford: Executive Producer & Film Editor

Joseph N. Valencia: Producer & Technical Expert

Curtis Yap: Camera Operator

Glenn Fuss: Publicist and Photographer

A 2018 photograph of some of the 1977 interviewees with current Vandenberg Air Force Hot Shots at a memorial for Dozer Operator: Clarence McCauley

Note: our Executive Producer (Dennis R. Ford) served as a twenty-year old Augmentee Fireman (Merriam Webster definition for Augmentee: a member of the US military (such as a military reservist or a member of the Navy or Air Force) who is assigned to special duty in a military unit (such as an Army battalion) in order to fill a shortage or to provide particular skills) and our Producer (Joseph N. Valencia) served as a nineteen year old Reserve Firefighter (Merriam Webster Definition for Reserve: forces not in the field, but available as directed) at the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire. Each faced the ensuing chaos and the private terror of facing a probable early death.

In an attempt to make sense of the ’77 fire, Valencia spent three years researching the Honda Canyon Fire. In 2004, he publishes an in-depth analysis of the fire in his book: Beyond Tranquillion Ridge - December 20-21, 1977-The Climatic Ending to a California Fire Season. Valencia’s autobiographical book served as the roadmap for the documentary.

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Behind The Scenes

Endorsements:

"Firestorm ’77 is a valuable contribution to our knowledge of American fire history. It’s particularly exciting to see this often overlooked fatality fire get the attention it merits." - Stephen J. Pyne Environmental Historian, Emeritus Professor Arizona State University, TED Speaker

"Firestorm ’77, a timely retelling of the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire, gripped me from the first moments through the telling of the horrific events by participants, their emotions still raw, to the examination of lessons learned—and unlearned. The filming is professional. The result will be a great learning tool for the fire service for decades to come. Young recruits will be fully engaged by a swiftly told and authentic narrative; the older guys will feel the heavy-duty power that’s burnt into it. With California experiencing increasingly severe fire seasons, Firestorm ’77 should also win a wider audience and show a general public the price of fighting mass conflagration. Well done, guys." - John N. Maclean, author of Fire on the Mountain and other wildland fire books

Film Festival Awards

Impact DOCS Awards - Award of Merit: Documentary Feature Award of Excellence: History / Biographical (2021)

Reviews

Firestorm '77 The True Story Of the Honda Canyon Fire is owned and produced by Augmentee Films LLC ©.