The recent Sand Fire has brought attention to the amazing level of efficiency that modern firefighters have achieved. They fight fires with military precision, using an array of modern technologies. Massive airpower can knock down flare-ups, and can save homes that are engulfed in flame.
But for the firefighters of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the 1930s, firefighting was a primitive affair, mostly consisting of clearing fuel from the fire’s path and beating at the advancing flames with shovels. Our three CCC camps were built in early 1933, fortuitously just months before the giant Pickens Fire of November 1933. Although the community was initially leery of the injection of so much concentrated testosterone (several hundred young men!) into our quiet valley, the “CCC boys” proved their worth in this disastrous fire and the resulting flood afterward. The CCC boys were not trained as firefighters. Most of the work they did was of the civil engineering variety, which here in the Crescenta Valley meant building fire roads, tree planting, building check dams and clearing brush. But when disaster struck, they were available for whatever was needed.
Here’s how a typical day of firefighting would have happened in our local mountains in the 1930s. The fire lookout tower on Mt. Lukens spotted smoke coming up from one of the canyons. The man on duty, after approximating the fire’s location, called the Crescenta Fire Station, which only fielded a handful of professional firemen. They in turn called on CV’s newly established CCC camps.
At the camp, the alarm bell rang and the men all dropped what they were doing. Within 10 minutes several trucks had fired up, and the men piled in with armloads of firefighting tools. Another truck would follow later with food and water for the men. After a couple of hours of bouncing up one of the newly-cut fire roads, lustily singing songs as they rode the wooden benches in the open bed of the truck, they turned off at an area within sight of the quickly growing fire. They formed into teams, each with a foreman, often an older man, a veteran of WWI. Some stayed behind to form a base camp with a field kitchen and aid station. The crews, carrying their equipment, set off cross-country along steep mountainsides, following trails if available, cutting their own if not. The foreman directed the crews to locations ahead of the fires and the arduous task of cutting firebreaks began.
The purpose was to remove the chaparral from the fire’s path, so that when the fire hit the newly stripped ground it could be easily beaten back. Men with axes, Pulaskis (half-axe, half-hoe) and brush-hooks (axe-like, but with a sharpened hook on the end) quickly cut out the brush. Shovel-men followed, scraping the ground and moving the cut brush. The most versatile tool the men used was the shovel. It was used for the firebreak, but as the fire got close it was used to beat at the flames and shovel dirt onto the fire. The only firefighting water was carried in five-gallon hand-pump backpacks, used to squirt up into burning trees, or to soak gunnysacks that were also used to beat at the flames. Back-fires were often set from the firebreak, literally fighting fire with fire.
This was dangerous work, standing toe-to-toe with roaring flames, and many of the untrained men died. Griffith Park has an infamous place in fire history when in 1933 almost 30 CCC and WPA workers were burned to death in a fast-moving fire they were fighting. It was critical for the foremen to keep a constant head count as inexperienced men easily got separated and lost in the smoke. Falling embers, dislodged boulders, and shifting winds were a constant threat to the men, and poison oak made their lives a living hell after the fires were over.
But they were there for us in our time of greatest need, with enthusiasm and bravery. In the Pickens Fire nearly 2,000 CCC boys fought the fire to a standstill. Without them, that fire would probably have swept our valley.