River of Fire: The Rattlesnake Fire and the Mission Boys


by John N. Maclean

It was late evening when the wind over a brush-choked canyon in northern California unexpectedly shifted and roared downhill. The Rattlesnake Fire had been burning since midday on the Mendocino National Forest. The fresh, violent wind picked up embers from the fire and spun them down into the depths of the canyon, blowing into a thunderous torrent of fire. The sight mesmerized veteran firefighters. Long, fatal minutes passed before they remembered a crew of twenty-four men working in the canyon below. The firefighters had hunkered down in a ravine to eat supper – and had posted no lookouts. The alarm was raised, but it came late. Fifteen of the men below began a race with fire down the canyon, while another nine scrambled upward toward safety. Other firefighters watched in horror from canyon slopes as the torrent of fire hurtled down after the fifteen men and snuffed out their headlamps, one after another. The 1953 Rattlesnake Fire, however, has become an icon of teaching, an educational opportunity for firefighters, and a marker for wildfire safety.

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