Synopsis: A combination of hurricane-force winds and the snapping of an electrical pole starts the Honda Canyon Fire on Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, early in the morning of December 20, 1977. Over a thousand people consisting of professional firemen and military personnel fight the fire. Outlier winds would increase to over a hundred miles per hour, making the firefight almost impossible.
In the course of events, a conflict of cultures emerged. Military commanders, fearful of the Base’s cold war secrets being compromised, attempted to control the protocols and procedures of the civilian fire fighters called upon to battle the enormous blaze, offering up their own untrained personnel to fight a conflagration that, for all intents and purposes, should have never been fought and couldn’t be beaten.
Four fatalities and sixty-five injuries result. Almost ten thousand acres burn, resulting in significant damage to the military installation infrastructure. Ironically and fortuitously, the fire will be out, a little more than 30 hours later, due to an incoming Pacific rain storm. The Air Force quickly declares it a victory, a battle won by its brave Airmen. However, those who were there will tell you a different story.
Firestorm ’77 recounts the confusion and chaos of December 1977 as told by those that were there on the front lines.
What drew me to the story of Firestorm ’77 was the raw, unfiltered experience of the participants. It wasn’t the glamorized, heroic depiction of fire fighters as born out in grand Hollywood epics. Many who fought this fire had no training whatsoever and were placed in situations of grave danger with no tools and no discussion.
Firestorm ’77 is a cautionary reminder of what can go wrong when ego, power, and fear commingle at the wrong time at the highest levels of decision making. As fire season has become longer, deadlier, and larger in much of the United States, the need for coherent planning, proper resources, and the patience and willingness to listen to those who face the fire is paramount.
It is my hope that Firestorm ’77 will serve as a reminder that as we face an uncertain future in regards to man-made, climate fueled, and natural fire challenges, that much can be gleaned from the past by those who stood before the ultimate trial.
Chris Hite is a Professor of Film & Video at Allan Hancock College, in Santa Maria CA. He started as a cinematographer and editor in 1996 and has since worked on hundreds of industrials, documentaries and commercials. He has directed eight films that have appeared at more than twenty-five national and international film festivals including Scottsdale International Film Fest, Cambofest in Phnom Pehn Cambodia, CineKid in the Netherlands, and the BBC Big Screen in Manchester, England. His last documentary, Ghosts in the Mountains, won the Gold Medal in the International Competition at the Wasaga Beach Film Festival Canada, the Best Appalachian Short at the Queen City Film Fest, Maryland, and Best Camera at the Star Doc Film Fest in Los Angeles. Chris was an animator for six seasons of Smart Start Kids, a children’s educational program produced by WRAL in Raleigh, NC. The show won an Emmy Award in 2005. Chris has written for Super-8 Today Magazine and presented papers at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies and the Italian Cinema(s) Abroad conference. His short screenplays have won awards at the LA Sports Film Festival and the Action on Film Festival. He holds a BA in Film/Video Production from Pennsylvania State University and an MFA in Screenwriting and Film Studies from Hollins University, Roanoke, VA.