Pine Valley girl recalls the 1970 Laguna fire

Red sky

1970 Laguna fire - shot taken from Country Crest Drive, El Cajon. “We had trained for a fire coming down Kitchen Creek as much as you could train.  But as far as training on anything like the Laguna Fire — no way."
  • 1970 Laguna fire - shot taken from Country Crest Drive, El Cajon. “We had trained for a fire coming down Kitchen Creek as much as you could train. But as far as training on anything like the Laguna Fire — no way."

In the fall of 1970, California caught fire.

Between September 25 and October 3 that year, the U. S. Forest Service recorded 16 fires that consumed over 528,000 acres statewide. From Humboldt County in the north to the Mexican border, high winds and record low humidity set the stage for some of the worst fires ever reported in a state known for big fires.

In the chaparral-covered hills east of San Diego, Saturday, September 26, dawned a burnt orange. At 6:15 that morning, the first day of deer-hunting season, two hunters reported a fire to two Forest Service men at the Kitchen Creek hunter’s station. Kitchen Creek runs south out of the Laguna Mountains just east of Pine Valley. In an area now familiar to San Diegans from television footage of illegal aliens trudging along dirt roads through manzanita and dust-colored boulders, Santa Ana winds fanned the incipient flames.

By September 29, what became known as the Laguna-Kitchen Creek Fire had burned 185,000 acres. Its borders stretched west to El Cajon, Spring Valley, and Lemon Grove, and south past the Sweetwater Reservoir almost to Chula Vista. At the fire’s height, it burned 4000 acres per hour and moved 32 miles in 30 hours.

I remember the Laguna Fire. I was eight years old. We lived in a three-bedroom wood-frame house on Valley View Trail in Pine Valley. My father was the chief of the Pine Valley Volunteer Fire Department. Every Thursday evening at 7:00, the big siren in the middle of town would wail, and men from around the valley would pour into the tiny firehouse for the department’s weekly meeting. Other evenings or early in the morning or late afternoons, the siren would call the men to an emergency. Sometimes a house on fire. More often than not, a wreck on the highway.

When I was a kid, Highway 80 stretched like a long, thin ribbon, two measly lanes, from San Diego up over the mountains, down into the desert, and onto the Arizona border. Cattle trucks and semis laden with produce from the Imperial Valley labored up the steep serpentine grades. Cars, impatient to get around the slow-moving behemoths, passed where they shouldn’t. I remember my father coming home from head-on collisions, his face set. He never talked about the crashes. And if we were out driving in another part of the county and had to slow down to get around emergency crews working at a wreck, my dad always told us to look the other way.

In the fall, when the winds blew hard out of the east, we worried about brush fires. We watched other fires on the TV news, tiny black firemen shapes outlined against great walls of orange flame. I remember waking up on that Saturday in September 1970 in the room I shared with my sister. White plaster walls and white-and-blue flowered curtains at the window. Already the light coming through the window stained the walls and curtains a sickly yellow. My nostrils ached with a smell like burnt, crushed herbs.

The phone rang a lot that morning. My mom spoke in the urgent yet businesslike tone she got when important things happened. My dad left the house before breakfast to drive the short mile and a half up to Sunrise Highway and to look at the fire. When he got back, my mom called the firemen and told them to stand by in case the fire came into the valley.

As the morning progressed, the sky got darker. Black and orange and red clouds obscured the sun. Mom drove my little brother and me to the firehouse so she could answer the phone there while Dad and the other firemen readied their trucks and equipment. Green Forest Service trucks and fire engines from different areas around San Diego rumbled up the highway and gathered at the clubhouse a block down the street from the fire station. Inside the firehouse, the smell of brewing coffee mingled with the nose-stinging aroma of institutional pine cleaner. Sitting at a desk with the telephone receiver pressed against her ear, my mom called the firemen’s wives and told them we might have to evacuate. She set a phone chain in motion to alert all the valley’s residents. “Listen for the siren,” she said over and over again. “When the siren sounds, it’s time to leave the valley.”

Pausing between calls to light a cigarette, my mom told me, “Go out back and watch Sunrise Highway. When you see the fire come over the hill, tell me right away.”

My little brother and I ran out into the red-tinged gloom. The wind tore at our hair. Casting occasional glances across the valley toward the Lagunas, we swung on the metal rail that ran beside the firehouse. At one point, we ran to the front of the firehouse to see what my dad was doing. When we came back, yellow tongues of flame burned halfway down the mountain. My heart raced. I ran into the firehouse. “Mom,” I panted, “the fire’s come over the hill.”

My mom ran outside to see for herself. The firemen followed us. A few minutes later, the siren wailed. We drove back to the house, gathered some clothes, the gray metal box where my mom kept all our important papers, and a huge crate filled with family photos. While my dad stayed in the valley fighting the fire, we spent the next two days at my grandma’s house in Bay Park. We watched our fire on the TV. On Sunday, the sky grew dark with smoke, and ash fell like snow all around my grandma’s house.

Tuesday, we drove back to Pine Valley. The entire east side of the valley, an area sparsely populated and composed mostly of the valley’s dump, looked as if it had been firebombed. Bare skeletons of trees rose out of black earth. The meadow, a grassy plain in the middle of the valley, had burned too. Only three houses had been lost. Ours was not one of them.

That night the firemen and their families gathered in the park. My dad and the other men built a fire in one of the long brick pits and barbecued steaks and chops and chicken that had thawed in the Charcoal House restaurant’s freezer while the power was out during the fire. I’m sure the men told war stories.

I was too young to remember what my father said in the days and weeks after the Laguna Fire. My older sister tells me he talked of nothing else until she finally complained one night at the dinner table, “Can’t we talk about something other than the fire?” The few times he’s mentioned the fire to me over the years, he hasn’t said much. But each time, I thought I saw tears in his eyes.

Last week, I sat down with my father and asked him what he remembered. As he approaches 70, he doesn’t always remember what day it is or where he went yesterday. He recalled being on the fire department and the Laguna Fire.

“When I first joined the fire department, John Pingley was the chief,” my dad told me. Sitting at his kitchen table looking out at a stormy Mission Bay, my dad spoke in a deep rumble. He keeps his whitening hair cut short these days, and it stands straight up on top the way my grandfather’s did when I was a little girl. The sharp lines of his face have softened with age. But his eyes still snap with a fierce, angry humor. “Pingley was a retired Navy commander. A little while after we moved to the valley in 1962, I went over to the firehouse and asked if I could join. They said, ‘Okay.’ They almost couldn’t stop you from joining because they didn’t have that many men. So I started training with them.”

At every Thursday’s meeting, the firemen would begin with fire truck maintenance. “We kept the equipment spotless,” my dad recollected. After checking out the equipment, the firemen ran a drill. “We would pretend a fire was coming into Noble Creek or some other area around the valley. We would go out and spray water and do all the things you would do if you were really fighting a fire. We’d take a support tanker with us. And we had some houses that were shut down, summer houses, that we used to train on. I don’t know whether people knew we trained on their houses or not. We never went inside.

“John was real good that way,” my dad acknowledged. “We trained every meeting. Because of the number of auto accidents we had to run on, we also trained on first aid. We would practice getting people out of cars. We had a big circular saw that we could cut metal with and an old car that we cut up. That was fun.”

When my dad joined the department, he became one of 13 volunteer firemen. He moved up in the ranks. “When they made you a captain, they put you in charge of one of the trucks.” After serving as a captain for a few years, my dad was chosen to be chief in the mid-1960s. During his tenure, he kept up the department’s training. “We trained every week,” he said. “I think I made it a little more interesting by making the wrecks more realistic. And I made the guys actually go through the steps and do things instead of just talking about what they might do in the situation. When they showed up at a real wreck and stepped off the truck, they knew what they were going to do. I think it worked out better. It was quicker. Fewer mistakes.

“I remember the first time I ever saw the fire department in action,” my dad continued. “It was a house fire the next street up from ours. One guy would get out of the truck and he’d run and look at the fire. Then he’d run back. He hadn’t taken any tools with him. Then another guy would go up and look at the fire, and he’d come back. I said, ‘Geez, what’s going on here?’ At that time, I wasn’t even on the department; I was just an observer. That was a real eye-opener. Nobody on the department did anything until John Pingley showed up. If he wasn’t in the valley, you could go ahead and fight the fire. But if Pingley was in the valley, you didn’t do anything until he arrived at the scene. The sucker could burn to the ground if John didn’t get there on time.”

According to my dad, he adopted a different system when he was chief. “Everyone was trained to know what to do and to take charge until another officer showed up. Every fireman had to know how to fight the fire.”

The new system didn’t always work. “The first time the department ran on a call after I became chief, it was almost a calamity,” he laughed. “In the end, everything worked out all right, but it wasn’t clean. I’m trying to remember the first time everything went the way I planned. It may have been when the store in Guatay burned. The guys took the stuff in, and there were no mistakes. It went just like we had practiced. It was all pretty well set up by the time I got there.”

As part of their training, the firemen did a critique after every fire. “Then we would make a plan and put it in our fire book. If the structure ever burned again, we knew what we would do, where we would attack from. We also went ahead and made plans for a lot of the bigger structures in town, like Cecil’s store.”

When we lived in Pine Valley, Cecil Proffer owned the Pine Valley Store. A small general store like you might find in a Midwestern town, Cecil’s store sold chips and pop and ice cream to people who drove up from the Imperial Valley to cool off in the Pine Valley park. My mom drove into El Cajon every two weeks to do her big grocery shopping. But if we ran out of bread or eggs in between trips to town, my mom sent one of us across the meadow to Cecil’s.

While we lived in the valley, Cecil lost his store. My dad told me, “We had a plan in place when Cecil’s store actually burned. Of course, the fire started in a little tiny room off the main store itself. And it had been sitting in there cooking for a while before we got there. When Frank [one of my dad’s captains] opened the door, the fire came out and got the oxygen it needed. The store burned to the ground.”

I remember my dad talking about the fire at Cecil’s store. He told stories about pulling up layer after layer of old linoleum flooring trying to get at the fire burning underneath. Dad remembered, too. “Always up there you had to be careful because people would remodel without permits. If they wanted to put in a new floor, they wouldn’t tear out the old floor; they’d just bring in the wood and nail it down. And sometimes if they raised the floor a little bit, there would be a space under there about two inches high because they’d used two-by-fours. The fire would go right into that space between the old floor and the new floor and creep along. The smoke would be coming out clear down here,” my father pointed to one end of the room, “and the fire would be burning way over there.” He swung his hand toward the opposite wall. “So we learned what to look for.”

After we’d been talking for a while, I asked my dad about the Laguna Fire. “We had trained for a fire coming down Kitchen Creek,” he said, “as much as you could train. You can’t set a fire coming down Kitchen Creek and go after it. If the wind was blowing and we got a chance to train on a little fire, we always remembered what we did. And we were very careful to note what had burned or the way the wind took the fire.” Dad paused. “But as far as training on anything like the Laguna Fire — no way. Everything’s on fire from the highway to out past Art Preston’s house [a distance of two miles] and it’s all moving at you at 50 miles an hour.

“I remember seeing the smoke that morning when I came out of the house. I drove up to Sunrise Highway to an area called the gravel pit to check out the fire. The wind was blowing so strong you could hardly stand up. And you could see it was coming at us. They’d had a little spot fire that the Forest Service put out on the other side of Sunrise Highway, toward the valley. But, God, the wind was the worst I’ve ever seen it. So we just turned around and said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll go back to the valley and get ready for it.’ ”

When my dad spoke about fighting the fire, his eyes filled with tears. In all my life, I’ve seen my dad cry twice — once before they wheeled him into the operating room for his first open-heart surgery and once when our dog died. “What you do is stake out houses to protect yourself,” he said with tears streaming down his face. “You can hide behind the house if the fire is coming at you. So you pick a house that’s right in the path and wait until it comes and try and put it out.”

He named the houses the fire department staked out when the fire came into the valley. “When the trucks came into town from other areas, we’d have one of our guys take them and put them at a house. Or we tried to figure some place we could put them so they could catch the fire as it came by.”

Catching the fire sometimes meant beating back the flames over and over again. “We had old Frank Sexton stationed at the Moluskis’ house,” my dad remembered. The Moluskis owned one of the two houses south of the dump area where the fire entered the valley. “The fire’d come and Frank would knock it down. And he’d sit back. Then 15, 20 minutes later, here it’d come again. He’d knock it down. Twenty minutes later, he’d have to save the house again. Jesus. If you think about things, you might get scared in a situation like that where the fire just keeps coming and coming.”

My dad paused. His tears had already dried. “Actually, for a fire that size that burned right through the valley, we were real lucky. Usually it would have burned up everything. We lost three houses.”

I asked my dad about the fire storm. After the fire, one of the valley’s residents, June Cross, interviewed many people who lived in Pine Valley as well as the firemen who’d fought the fire. In April 1971, the Pine Valley Improvement Club published a compilation of Cross’s interviews. They titled the chronicle The Fire Issue. Many of the firemen interviewed for The Fire Issue talked about the fire storm. In the months after the Laguna Fire, I remember my dad talking about the fire storm as well.

“We were thinking about this all the time,” my dad explained. “We had a lot of trucks stationed up by the dump. We’d had a fire up there before that had come down to the dump and followed the creek into the valley. We figured this fire would be coming through that same area because the wind was blowing from the same direction as it had during the other fire. And I began to think, ‘If it really comes through here, we’re going to have big problems.’ So we moved some of the trucks out, especially the big trucks from town that had trouble making the turns on the little roads. Pretty soon after that, the fire storm came right through that area.”

According to the reports in The Fire Issue, about 5:00 Sunday morning, the firemen saw a deep red glow up behind the dump. “There’s no fuel for the fire at the dump,” my dad told me. “The area around the dump was cleared of brush. So the fire burned down to the dump, and then it sat there and cooked. It pulled oxygen from as far away as Guatay, three miles up the hill on the other side of the valley. It created a vacuum. It sucked oxygen and sucked oxygen until there was no oxygen left in that particular area. Then suddenly there was an explosion, and the fire filled in the area that it had pulled all the oxygen out of. It just came barreling down there. I’d say it was probably moving 30 or 40 miles an hour. It went right by the guys we had stationed up near the dump.

“It’s called a blow-out. The fire goes through the vacuum it’s created until it begins to get fuel. This was an especially big blow-out. A lot of times, if you’ve got a brush fire in town, the blow-out will go a little way and stop. Like in a neighborhood, it finds a new fuel source, a new house, and it stops. But not when you’ve got your fuel sources so far apart like we did. There were only a couple houses up by the dump. So you’ve just got little grassy or brush areas to keep the fire going.

“It traveled a mile in a couple of minutes. The fireball went right by Hobie Ericson’s house like a big torch, blistered the side of his house. Then it went flying out into the meadow. The flames on the little grass in the meadow were ten feet high. The fire burned the meadow, and then it just quit.”

In The Fire Issue, some of the most dramatic recollections about the fire storm are attributed to Jim Orsborn. As a battalion chief for the La Mesa Fire Department, Orsborn led a mutual-aid task force composed of firemen and equipment from La Mesa, El Cajon, Lemon Grove, Santee, Lakeside, and Spring Valley. In response to calls for assistance, the task force began arriving in Pine Valley around 6:00 Saturday night. Early Sunday morning, Orsborn had his units stationed at houses a mile or so west of the dump area.

According to The Fire Issue, “Orsborn was by his station wagon, loaded with communication gear, when the fireball hit. He watched it approach, fascinated by the kaleidoscopic rolling and pitching of the red hues. It was like nothing he’s ever seen — and hopes never to see again. He first felt a cool mist as the moisture, pushed by heat from the trees and shrubs, hit him, then intense heat.

“A fire truck moved up, and they began running lines to Starke’s house; the walls were smoking. They had just minutes to begin cooling the structure [to prevent it from exploding]. The wind, estimated at 70 mph, blew burning branches, timbers, brush, and debris past them. Orsborn saw an eight-foot plank fly by, like a flaming arrow in reverse. He heard breaking glass; seconds later, the roof of the house lifted into the trees; it dropped into flaming pieces. In the distance, he could see Jefferson’s house burning. Smoke came from the walls of Gray’s house. An Alpine fire truck was setting up there.

“He turned and felt a swish go by his legs. It was a trailer’s butane tank. Flames poured from the valve end as it was propelled along like a rocket. They heard other larger butane tanks exploding around them. A trailer was in flames and another nearby began to smoke; they turned to cool it.

“Black smoke began to settle in. When he moved a foot from his car, Orsborn had trouble finding it again.”

My father remembered the fire storm’s aftermath. “After it burst out into the meadow and burned the grass, it didn’t have any fuel left. So we just sat back and watched it. We kept it from jumping the highway.” Mutual-aid units fought the structure fires left in the fireball’s wake.

By 11:00 Sunday morning, the Forest Service and mutual-aid units were reassigned to Alpine. While they’d been fighting the fire in Pine Valley, the fire’s southern flank had gone around the valley and headed west. The Pine Valley Fire Department stayed behind, patrolling the valley and knocking down hot spots. By the following morning, some residents began to return. Some, like us, tried to drive back Monday but were turned back outside Alpine because of the fire still burning there.

Twenty-seven years later, I drove out Interstate 8 to Pine Valley. In the intervening years, my family had moved to Northern California. I’d graduated from high school and college and started a family of my own. Like my parents, I eventually came back to San Diego. When we got together for Thanksgiving dinner this year, my mom told me she and my dad had been invited to the 50th anniversary of the Pine Valley Fire Protection District. They planned to go with their friends the Mackeys. Jerry and Jan Mackey lived in the valley the same time we did. They had two boys, Jay and Jeff, one in my class, the other a year ahead of me. At the time of the Laguna fire, Jerry Mackey was a fireman with the El Cajon Fire Department as well as a volunteer with the Pine Valley Fire Department.

The night of this past December 11, the wind howled out of the mountains. As I walked from my car to the dining room at the Pine Valley Bible Camp, I shivered in the dry air. Stepping through the great wooden door, I was struck by the warm aroma of roasting beef and the spicy scent of the giant Christmas tree that towered in front of the room’s picture windows. Older men and women dressed in their Sunday best mingled among the gaily decorated round tables. Younger men in blue firemen’s uniforms stood with heads together. Occasional laughter washed through the room. I found my parents and the Mackeys waiting in line to have their pictures taken.

“You’ll never guess who’s here,” my mom said. “Freddy Cox. You know, Fred Jr.?” Fred Cox had been in my class in school from the time I started kindergarten until we moved away at the end of sixth grade. His dad, Fred Sr., succeeded my dad as fire chief after we moved away. “Freddy’s the chief now,” my mom explained.

“Fred Sr.?” I asked.

“No. Fred Jr.”

Jan Mackey gave me a big hug and asked, “What was Freddy’s nickname? We old folks can’t remember.”

“Knute,” I answered. “Sometimes we called him Knutey.”

Everybody laughed. “Hey, Knutey,” my mom called across a few tables to a group gathered by the scrapbooks.

I remember Knute Cox as a sweet-faced, quiet boy. Never the most popular but always well liked. I half expected to see a ten-year-old boy standing across the room. Instead, the group parted to reveal a man in his mid-30s, dressed in a white short-sleeved shirt, dark tie, and dark, creased slacks. A golden badge shone on his shirt-front. Cox’s blondish hair had begun to thin a little on top, and he sported the universal fireman’s brushy mustache above his smiling mouth.

I introduced myself, and we shook hands. “Sure, I remember you,” he said. “Thanks for coming to the reunion.”

A few minutes later, Dusty Fanner, the fire department’s public information officer and reunion organizer called us to dinner. I sat with my parents and the Mackeys and a younger couple. The husband of the younger couple was a current member of the department. Between bites of roast beef and stuffed potatoes, my parents and the Mackeys reminisced about the valley.

“Do you remember?” one of them would begin, “now what was his name... They lived at the corner of Pine Boulevard and Rocky Pass. She was on the Improvement Club?”

Halfway through dinner, someone brought up the Laguna fire. Their voices took on the same tone my grandparents used to get when they spoke about the War or the Depression. “That was sure something,” Jan Mackey shook her head and gazed off into the distance. “Do you remember how the wind blew?”

Everyone nodded.

Jerry Mackey fought the fire in Pine Valley and then continued the battle in other areas with the El Cajon Fire Department. He told us about one incident. “We decided we would take a stand at the top of this ridge. We had our hoses all set up. The fire was heading toward us up the hill. We had a plan that when the fire crested the ridge, the truck would blow its siren, and everyone would throw on their foggers and knock it down.” Mackey paused and smiled. “Well, we’re standing there all ready, and the fire was moving so fast. It crested the ridge and blew right over our heads. Whoosh,” Mackey waved his hand over his head. “They never even blew the signal. We stood there looking at each other and said, ‘Well, I guess we’ll catch it on the next ridge.’ ”

After dinner, Cox stood up in front of the crowd and thanked everyone for coming. The lights dimmed, and Cox stepped aside. On a screen behind him, black-and-white images of old fire trucks and men with short hair and horn-rimmed glasses flashed by. From a boom box beside the screen, Louis Armstrong sang “What a Wonderful World.” The black-and-white slides gave way to color. The music got more modern. We watched yellow-suited firemen lost in the mist from a fire hose, an inferno, boiling black clouds of smoke tinged red.

When the lights came up, Cox asked all the old firemen to stand and introduce themselves. My dad went first. “I’m Paul Hatter. I don’t remember when I became chief, but we left the valley in 1974. It’s a real pleasure to be here tonight. Thank you.”

Jerry Mackey introduced himself next, also short and to the point. Then Louis Perna, the department’s second chief, told stories about the department’s early days. Frank Ferguson, nearly 90 and the oldest former fireman in attendance, told the crowd, “I didn’t volunteer. I was drafted. I lived next door to Louis Perna.” Everyone laughed. “And I was there with Paul Hatter during the big fire, the biggest fire in the state of California.”

After the introductions, Cox gave out the annual service awards to his current firemen. Best Drill Attendance. Firefighter of the Year.

I spoke to Cox a few weeks later by phone. Cox, who has lived in Pine Valley all his life, joined the volunteer department in 1980 when he was 17H. “My dad was the chief,” Cox told me. “He talked me into it.” Cox liked fighting fire so much, he made it a career. In addition to his duties as volunteer chief, Cox works as a paid fireman in the Rancho Santa Fe Fire Protection District.

When Cox joined the department, the training requirements hadn’t changed much since my dad’s time. “They threw you a badge, and you went out on calls,” Cox recalled. Government regulations changed all that. Now all new volunteers go through a 160-hour fire academy. “They train for 8 hours on Saturdays and then attend the weekly Thursday-night meetings,” Cox said. “It takes about four months to complete the training. New firemen aren’t allowed to go out on calls until they graduate from the academy. Then they’re on probation for a year.”

The training the firemen receive at their weekly meetings resembles the old training but covers more material. “We have a quarterly drill calendar,” Cox said. “The guys sign up to teach different segments. For instance, in the spring, we do wild land fire training. We’ll usually start out in the classroom studying fire behavior and safety procedures. We move on to wild land hose lays. That involves where you position your trucks, where the hoses go. Toward the end of the quarter, we go to an area of brush and do the hose lay. We pretend to fight the fire, protect the structures, call in mutual aid.”

The 20 volunteers currently in the department ran on 311 calls last year. According to Cox, the majority were medical emergencies or vehicle accidents. Brushfires accounted for 11 percent of the department’s calls. “We haven’t had any major fires in the valley since 1970,” Cox said. “We had a 250-acre fire south of the valley. It took us two and a half days to knock it down. There were no structures involved. We actually could use some small fires to keep the brush controllable. Right now, the brush is so thick you can’t even walk through it. There’s a real potential for disaster.”

Cox remembered the Laguna Fire. “I remember getting our animals ready to evacuate,” Cox told me. “We had horses and dogs and cats. I remember the sky was dark red in the middle of the day. I remember meeting my aunts at the Pine Valley stables and riding with them into town. I remember sitting up on the hill near their house in Lakeside and watching the flames.”

Cox reflected for a moment. “Do you remember the rats?” he asked me. “When we came back to the valley, there were dead rats all over the road. The fire burned them out of their homes.”

Back at the reunion dinner, all the current and former firemen gathered for a picture. At the front of the room, standing in rows on risers, old faces smiled beside the not-so-old. At the center of the front row, my dad sat next to Knute Cox. In the still moment before the camera flashed, the wind outside sounded like an echo.

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