Willows, CA Canyon Fires Traps Several, July 1953
FIFTEEN MEET DEATH IN MENDOCINO.
RELIGIOUS GROUP DIES TRAPPED IN CANYON.
Willows (UP) -- Fifteen forest fire fighters were trapped and burned to death late last night by a flash fire moments after they had offered prayers of thanks because they thought they had controlled the blaze.
Fourteen of the dead were trainees from the ill-fated New Tribes mission at nearby Fouts Springs in Colusa county. The other victim was identified by Mendocino national forest Supervisor LEON THOMAS as ROBERT POWERS, a United States forest service employe.
A group of 24 men battled the fire in the coast range on Alder Springs road, 28 miles northwest of here all day yesterday.
About 10 p.m. last night, when it appeared the fire was safely in check, the men gathered in a small canyon and sat down to eat sandwiches and cold rations.
"We had just sat down to eat and had given thanks when we heard someone yelling 'Get out of here as fast as you can'," said KEN ATHERTON, Monroe, Ill., one of the missionary trainees who survived.
"We all split up. Some of us headed up the ridge to the road and the last I saw of the others, they were going down the canyon."
Another eye-witness, HOMER HANCOCK, Mellot, Ind., also a New Tribes missionary, said he saw the lights of the forest fighters coming down the canyon when the wind shifted and the frie broke out anew.
Nine Climb Rope.
"They appeared to be trying to get away from the fire," HANCOCK said. "Then there was a big puff of smoke and I never saw them again."
Nine of the men in the group managed to climb a rope up the steep side of the canyon and escape down a fire trail cut by a bulldozer. Forest fighters said that if the victims had gone the same way, they also would have been saved.
But instead the fire, fanned by a fresh wind of 15 miles an hour, jumped across the canyon and surrounded the men.
There was pitiful evidence that the missionary trainees had tried to dig in to escape the flames. Fourteen of the bodies were found in the space of a few yards, many of them beside shallow trenches eight or ten inches deep.
One of the victims might have escaped, forest employes said, except that his packet was stuffed with bulky rations and he could not get his body low enough into the crude foxhole.
The alarm first was given by CHARLES LAFFERTY, one of the missionary trainees who managed to escape. He was delegated to sit on a ridge and watch the forest fire while the others are a late snack.
LAFFERTY said the wind suddenly switched to the north and fanned sparks into flames.
"I ran back as fast as I could and gave the alarm," he said, "but the fire came on so fast I barely beat it there."
In addition to POWERS, identified victims were DAVE JOHNSON, 25; HOWARD ROWE, 25; SERGIO COLLES, 40; CECIL HITCHCOCK, 21; DAN SHORT, 21; RAY SHERMAN, 20; STAN WHITEHOUSE, 30; STAN BOTE, 26; DARRELL NOAH, 35; BOB MEIDEN, 32; PAUL GIFFORD, 32; BENNY DINNEL, 24; and HAROLD GRIFFITH, 37.
All were enrolled in the New Tribes camp at Fouts Springs where they were training for jungle missionary work.
The disaster, described as the worst forest-fire tragedy in California in 20 years by forestry service officials, was the latest in a series of tragic blows to the New Tribes mission.
In November, 1950, a plane carrying the mission's leader, PAUL W. FLEMING, and 20 other missionaries crashed and all were burned on Mount Moran, Wyo. The bodies were not recovered from the snow until the following spring. In June of 1950, 10 other missionaries and five children were killed in another crash in Venezuela and earlier a New Tribes representative was slain by jungle tribesmen in Bolivia.
The fire still raged out of control today and the United States forest service dispatcher at Willows said more than 200 men were battling the blaze. The dispatcher said the area was dry as tinder and the humidity had been low.
San Mateo Times California 1953-07-10