THE 2009 STATION FIRE AND LOS ANGELES COUNTY FIRE DEPARTMENT MT. GLEASON INMATE CAMP 16

Mt. Gleason Fire Camp 16 sits on a rocky ridge deep in the Angeles National Forest. It is brutally rough country, with steep slopes falling away at 70° to 90° angles. The inaccessibility made it a perfect site for a Nike Missile base, which the U. S. Army maintained there between 1956 and 1974. In 1979, Camp 16 was constructed under a cooperative arrangement between the Los Angeles County Fire Department and the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and serves as a fire-fighting training facility for more than 100 male inmates.

None of those stationed at Camp 16 on August 26, 2009 could have known that their training was about to be severely tested. That afternoon, an arsonist ignited a small patch of vegetation not far from the Angeles Crest Ranger Station. The first report came in at 3:20 p.m., and within 11 minutes Forest Service personnel noted that the fire already had ballooned to “three acres and running.” It turned into the Station Fire, which blackened more than 160,000 acres and created a massive conflagration with pyro-cumulus clouds that billowed thousands of feet into the sky over Los Angeles.

For those who were battling on the ground and in the air to control the swirling flames, that churning column of smoke, gas, and heat signaled the fire’s ferocity. The Station Fire periodically blew up and collapsed, it acted like a bellows, sucking up and flinging fiery brands a mile in advance of the main blaze, then fanning those embers with powerful downdrafts and erratic winds.

The pine trees and live oaks, chaparral, manzanita, and other vegetation in the canyons and on the ridgelines, and faces were tinder dry. The atmosphere was superheated. The humidity was almost non-existent. Adding to the danger was that portions of this landscape, especially around Camp 16, had not burned since 1919.

For the veteran firefighters assigned to defend the camp or for the inmate-trainees who lived there, this did not bode well. Although they all knew on the morning of August 30 that the fire was running in their direction, and as a precaution had cleared the camp’s perimeter and grounds of flammable debris; and although they rehearsed exactly what steps they must take to protect themselves, the fire’s ground speed and ferocious energy took them by surprise.

Hoping to slow or deflect the fiery rush, at 4:20 p.m. the Superintendent of Camp 16, Captain Tedmund Hall, and Arnie Quinones, foreman of Crew 16-3, drove to an access road beneath the camp to begin backfiring operations. Their valiant efforts were to no avail: conditions rapidly deteriorated around them, they tried to race through the flames, thick smoke, and blistering heat to safety, but instead veered over a berm and plunged into the burning canyon.

Their deaths are a stark reminder of the human costs associated with wildland firefighting.

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