Hauser Canyon fire of 1943
San Diego Reader (2004-08-05) Jeff Smith
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[Original article by Roger Challberg has been withdrawn upon request of the author. You may read this article in the September 9, 2007 Edition of the Back Country Messenger
In the fall of 1943, soldiers in San Diego's backcountry had to stop gunnery practice before noon. After that,
the heat became so intense the targets would seem to dance. On October 1 — the Friday before Fire
Prevention Week — a bullet missed its mark and ignited the Hauser Canyon Fire, one of the United States'
most tragic fires: at least 77 men injured, 11 dead.
The Hauser Canyon is due north from Round Potrero Canyon, and some consider it the "gateway" to the steep canyon itself.
- Camp Lockett was the largest military facility in the backcountry where famous African-American "buffalo soldiers" patrolled the border on horseback. Thirty-five-hundred Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at Camp Lockett, the last cavalry base built in the U.S.
- At Camp Pine Valley, the marines trained 110 men every eight weeks.
- They fired rifles and 30 adn 50-caliber machine guns at conventional ranges and also on maneuvers in the Cleveland National Forest.
- Every fifth machine gun bullet was a "tracer" that produced a bright red trail provided by magnesium, perchlorate, and chromium.
- The most likely cause of the Hauser Canyon Fire was a tracer that may have struck a rock or tree, smoldering through the night.
- On Saturday morning, Santa Ana winds and 90-plus degree head fanned the fire on bone-dry chaparral.
- At 10am, a lookout on Los Piños Mountain spotted white smoke in Hauser Canyon.
- Lyons peak lookout reported heavy smoke.
- A fire suppression crew from Descanso Ranger Station and 18 inmates from Camp Ole raced to the canyon.
- Jack Ewing, director of operations for the U.S. Forest service, called Camp Pine Valley and Camp Lockett for assistance.
- At 12:29, a convoy drove 113 Marines to Hauser Canyon campground, arriving at 1:20pm
- The Marines had little, if any, training in fire suppression, attending a one-day fire school in the summer of 1943.
- Hauser was, and still is, a narrow, remote wilderness of scrub oaks, sumac, and jungle-thick undergrowth. The slopes average 60 percent - every ten feet have a six foot rise in elevation
- In 1943, San Diego had no Colorado River connection. Since Morena and Barrett dams were among the county's primary water sources, a threat to San Diego's water, says historian Jim Hinds, was "like being bombed."
- Buel Hunt, 34, the Cleveland National Forest's fire safety and training officer, was in charge (interviewed in 1994): "One hundred untrained Marines sent by fire control officer [Ewing] up a drainage with only two forest service officers: no fire bombers, no bulldozers, a fire engine supposed to anchor us to the road, but it disappeared when wind — or their backfire? — trapped the Marines."
- No uniform caught fire. But the radiant heat was so intense, “the men were literally cooked.”
- Although the monster had moved on, they had another problem: they were still trapped in a V-shaped hell zone with no way out.
- Hauser Canyon became the county's fourth major fire of the season. In September, 4000 acres burned at Potrero, 1000 at Viejas, and 4100 at Indian Creek, the latter two caused by "careless" smokers. The Hauser Fire grew into a five-day,
16,000-acre conflagration the state forestry office, at the time, called the worst in California national forest history.
- Roger Challberg: "People look back and ask. what did we do wrong, what did we do right? But it wouldn't matter whose crew was there given the location. "I've learned not to second-guess. I've seen fires in high winds: flames leap an eight-lane freeway. [Fire-breaks are normally 100 feet.] An eight lane freeway That’s concrete. And vvvvvt — right across, ka-poof! You could have the finest radios, finest fire departments, trucks, everything ... With ripe conditions like in '43 — and today — nothing'll stop a fire."