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Firefighters Who Died Or Were Seriously Injured In Huge Santa Barbara County Wildfire Remembered

It’s been largely forgotten over the course of time, but the deadliest wildfire in Santa Barbara County's history killed four firefighters and seriously injured two others. 

The Romero Fire started on October 6th, 1971 in the mountains above Summerland, and raged for a week and a half before it was fully contained.  Now, those firefighters who gave so much to help others are being honored.

John Hotchkiss was just a teenager at the time when he spotted the beginning of what would be the Romero Fire.  He and his friends were riding BMX bikes near his Summerland home, when they spotted the blaze burning in the foothills between Romero Canyon and Ladera Lane.

But, the fire would soon become much more personal for Hotchkiss.  His older brother Gerald was a bulldozer operator who worked as a U.S Forest Service contractor on brush fires.  On the second day of the fire, Gerald was part of a team of four bulldozer contractors, and four Forest Service firefighters sent to Santa Monica Canyon, north of Carpinteria to build a fire line.

As sunset approached, one of the most experienced dozer operators opted to leave, warning that conditions were ripe for sundowner winds, and a change in the fire’s direction.  It’s exactly what happened.  Firefighters above the blaze were unable to warn the bulldozer teams with the primitive military surplus radios being used.  And, the flames kept them from driving there in person.  The three bulldozer teams, six people in all, including Gerald Hotchkiss, tried to escape the canyon when they realized what was occurrring.

As the three dozers tried to leave the canyon single file, the flames caught up with the last one, being driven by Hotchkiss.  His hands were badly burned, so he jumped off his bulldozer and got on one being driven by Red Kaiser.

The four firefighters on the other bulldozer decided to try to stop, and use it as part of a shelter against the inferno.  But, they were overcome by the huge blaze.  Three died at the scene, and a fourth passed away at a hospital. 

John Hotchkiss says his brother Gerald, and bulldozer operator Red Kaiser tried to outrace the inferno.  But, the flames caught up with them.  They jumped off the dozer, and used its front blade as a shield from the flames.

The two survived, but were badly burned.  Hotchkiss says it took his brothers years to recover from the ordeal.  He spent a year at Cottage Hospital, and had to undergo multiple surgeries.

The 15,000 acre fire was finally controlled a week and a half later. In addition to the lives lost, and people hurt, it destroyed nine homes.  The blaze was the work of an arsonist, who was convicted because of the testimony of Hotchkiss.  The bulldozer operator had to be brouought to the courtroom by ambulance to testify.

A memorial was built for the six firefighters off of Bella Vista Drive, where the fire started.  It was destroyed by the 2017 Thomas Fire, but was later rebuilt.  On Tuesday, a new plaque which is easier for the public to visit is being dedicated in a nearby park.  Carpinteria-Summerland Fire Marshall Rob Rappaport says it's at the gazebo in Toro Canyon Park, put there to make it accesable to the community.

Gerald Hotchkiss died two years ago.  But his brother John,  who lives in Santa Maria, was among those on hand for Tuesday’s ceremony in Toro Canyon Park.

Most people in Santa Barbara County today don’t even know about the deadly, and destructive fire nearly a half century ago.  Relatives of those who gave so much hope that this plaque will help people realize what these men did to try to protect the community.  

Lance Orozco has been News Director of KCLU since 2001, providing award-winning coverage of some of the biggest news events in the region, including the Thomas and Woolsey brush fires, the deadly Montecito debris flow, the Borderline Bar and Grill attack, and Ronald Reagan's funeral.