On March 2, an extravaganza for moviegoers will begin in Santa Barbara. From March 2 to 12, 120 feature films and 60 short films representing 54 countries will be screened at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival.
One of these films is sure to pique the interest of those interested in what happened locally during the Cold War and its impact on the lives of military and civilian personnel working for the US Air Force. Strength.
You will remember that at that time there were also some “hot wars” in Korea and Vietnam. To maintain a state of readiness, the U.S. military operated bases and outposts around the world, although funds were prioritized to fund these wars. One such base was near Vandenberg Space Force Base.
Unlike most Air Force installations at the time, Vandenberg did not have and still does not have an assigned aircraft. Military and civilian personnel at this 98,000-acre base have been tasked with launching spacecraft and testing ballistic missiles.
Many launch sites were in semi-remote areas of the base to prevent an accident at one, such as an explosion or propellant leak, from affecting the others or off-base communities.
The landmass of Vandenberg consists of hills and valleys full of brush and trees at the southern base and hills covered with grass at the northern base. At the time, there were no wildfire management training programs or strategies on military bases; the fire department at the time was trained and equipped to fight aircraft and structural fires.
Largely due to hot wars that depleted military budgets, their rolling stock was generally over 20 years old and unsuitable for fighting forest fires.
Military commanders were trained to “fly and fight”, meaning air operations were the primary mission of the air force. These same commanders were supposed to “take charge” of any threat against their bases, even if they had no experience or training to deal with the problem in question.
In late December 1977, during hurricane-force winds, a fire broke out in the steep, brush-filled Honda Canyon on the south base. The vegetation had cooked in drought conditions for several years.
Due to the terrain and lack of proper equipment, the initial firefighter response was unable to contain the fire. Before long, the fire raced Honda Canyon at hurricane speed to the shoreline; firefighters and missile launch sites were overrun as they eventually burned over 9,000 acres.
“Firestorm ’77: The True Story of the Honda Canyon Fire” will screen twice at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival. The first is scheduled for 8:20 a.m. on Wednesday March 9 and the second at 2:20 p.m. on Friday March 11; both at the Metropolitan Metro 4 Theater, 618 State St., Santa Barbara.
“Firestorm ’77” is dedicated to eyewitness accounts of what happened that day. According to their Facebook page, the film is “the story of a wind-driven wildfire at a California Air Force base that escalated into a power struggle between military command and civilian firefighters, resulting in tragic loss of life and, for survivors, a lifetime of recurring trauma.
This is not a re-enactment of the events of that fire; instead, it is first-hand testimony from people who were there that day. Thousands of men and women were killed or seriously injured during the Cold War during war games and training exercises.
It was not a “game”, four people, Base Cmdr. Colonel Joseph Turner, Vandenberg Fire Chief Billy Bell, Deputy Fire Chief Eugene Cooper and base heavy equipment operator Clarence McCauley were all killed and 65 others were injured as the fire moved towards the ocean.
If you miss seeing this film, you are missing an opportunity to see what the Cold War was like for airmen and civilian employees at Vandenberg Space Force Base in December 1977.
— Ron Fink, resident of Lompoc since 1975, is retired from the aerospace industry. He has followed Lompoc politics since 1992 and, after serving 23 years in various Lompoc commissions, retired from public service. The opinions expressed are his own.