A Hero Needs No Uniform.
By DARRYL MANZER.
Published in The Signal, 1-23-2005.
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"Dan was driving our big 1959 Pontiac at 70 mph, going around the curves (with tires) screeching."
I'm sitting here typing this in Virginia, and the television news keeps reporting about the rain and mudslides in California. We have a warm fire in the fireplace. Outside it is below freezing.
All of the rain on the heels of last year's fires remind me of the rains, snows and fires of 1962, especially the fires around the Santa Clarita Valley on Aug. 28, 1962.
Of course, I think about warmth. I'm a Native Southern Californian. My body thinks any temperature below 65 degrees is cold.
There was plenty of fuel for such fires in the hills that year. There had been an abnormally high amount of rainfall and even a heavy snow. Summer came to bake the lush green hills into the perfect "high octane" fuel for a brush fire.
The 1962 fire in Placerita Canyon started in a manure pile on the old Onondarka Ranch around 1:30 p.m.
Another fire started an hour earlier just north of Hasley Canyon near Castaic. Arson was suspected.
The winds were hot and dry. It took little time for the fires to move south. This was the day when Melody Ranch, in Placerita Canyon, went from being "Gunsmoke's" Dodge City to a location for the TV series "Combat." It was also the day that a real "Old West" town, Mentryville, was saved by a couple of men who never wanted to be called heroes.
In Pico Canyon, we had heard about the fires but we weren't concerned. "Surely the fire can't jump Highway 126," we said. (Highway 126 was only two lanes wide in 1962). "And then there is the river and fields." We heard it had been contained. We didn't know it had jumped the highway, river and fields.
I heard that some folks in Stevenson Ranch got similar reports of fire containment during last year's fires. I'm sure they can confirm the wide swings of emotion that happen when such reports prove untrue from elation to abject terror in a few short minutes.
My sister, Karen Tibbitts, and her husband Dan lived in Reseda at the time. They called about 5 p.m. and my mother told them not to worry. The fire was still up near Castaic.
Karen and Dan drove up anyway. By the time they got to Pico Canyon, the fire was at the ridge top on the north side of the canyon. We had started loading the pickup truck with important papers and my mother's sewing machine. (She wouldn't have left home without it.) My mother, Karen and I headed out of the canyon to some friends' home in Newhall. Dan and my father were the only ones left in Mentryville.
Manzer (left) with son-in-law Dan Tibbitts in July 1961. A year later the pair would stare down an inferno in Pico Canyon.
The Standard Oil Co. pump was getting water to the tank that was on top of PCO Hill. So there was plenty of water and plenty of water pressure. They were just a little short on firefighters.
Standard Oil employees would get there eventually, but the company oil wells in Placerita Canyon had fire all around them at the time. The Los Angeles County Fire Department was also stretched pretty thin. They were trying to keep up with the fire when it jumped Highway 126.
The attempts to get ahead of it were proving to be futile. They were trying to reposition. Of course, with only two pumper trucks, it was going to be impossible to do much fire fighting.
* * *
Some people become heroes by choice. They join the military or police or fire departments. They are also doctors, nurses, and even teachers. All of the people in those professions are trained and practice being heroes every day just by being on the job.
Mentryville was fresh out of trained and professional uniform-wearing heroes. Two men an oil field worker and telephone cable splicer were thrust into the world of heroes.
My father and Dan thought they would have help. Two men from Standard Oil came by to help and left with the only transportation in the canyon (except for a couple of horses). My father had been driving a company truck. The two other employees took it and the truck they drove in on, to get more hoses and people.
Now the fire was all around them. They had to stay in Mentryville.
They stayed for a couple of reasons. First, they had plenty of water to keep the buildings wetted down. Second, walking through a wall of fire wasn't an option. They made a plan that if they couldn't stop the buildings from burning and it got too hot, they would go to the creek bottom and lie in the damp sand. They would get down as best they could and pray that the fire would go over them.
According to Dan, things got a little anxious just as the fire came over the hill behind the Big House. My Dad had been using a three-inch hose to wet down the school house, and Dan had very little pressure on his two-inch hose near the Big House. So, Dan yelled at Dad to cut off the big hose. Then Dan had the water he needed to stop the fire just 25 feet from the Big House. They moved to wet down the barn and knock down flames nearby.
The fire was almost past and going up the south side of the canyon when the first truckload of Standard Oil employees arrived back on the scene.
It looked like the roof of the school house porch was smoldering. That was when Frenchy Legasse got up on the school-house roof. But his foot went through it. He had to get the fire out on the roof. He was stuck in it. Kenny Hall, another Standard Oil employee, said it was almost comical if it hadn't been so dangerous.
Not everything was saved. The Westcott barn across from the school was lost to the flames. The old wooden cistern behind the Big House and the wooden tank on the hills northwest of the school were also lost.
The fire didn't move up the canyon toward the oil wells. The wells weren't in danger at any time. The fire burned Minnie-Lotta Canyon and on over to the Wickham place. It moved fast. Very fast.
The next day, we saw what had happened. The next day also saw the arrival of the Fire Department. Crews were brought in to cut fire lines and put out hot spots all over the hills. Good, old-fashioned shovel work.
The fire in Minnie-Lotta flared up, and after a few drops of borate by planes and some water drops by helicopter, the fire was out in Pico Canyon. It burned on to the San Fernando Valley, as did the fire in Placerita.
During the night of the fire, we stood in our friends' yard in Newhall and watched the fire go through Pico. Karen wondered if she had a father or husband. My mother had the same thoughts about her husband and son-in-law. I remember being very afraid. My home, father, and brother-in-law could all be gone by morning.
It was very early morning before we heard they were OK and not only that, they had saved the house, barn, school house and even the school-house outhouses.
During the night of Aug. 28, 1962, fire surrounded Newhall. Highways going south were closed. Phone lines were down. It was a scene out of Dante's "Inferno."
The morning of Aug. 29, 1962, as we drove from Newhall to Mentryville through the blackened landscape, we couldn't fathom how they had survived, let alone saved all of the buildings they did save.
* * *
Saving Mentryville was "old hat" to my father. He had done that when he talked the company into letting us move there instead of tearing the place down. So now, he did it again, along with Dan Tibbitts, his son-in-law. At a time when the uniformed heroes were stretched thin, those without a uniform stepped in and did the job.
My Dad was and always will be a hero to me. Dan Tibbitts was a hero the day of the fire, and many times since. Standard Oil even sent him a letter of appreciation for fighting the fire.
We never know when the "uniformed heroes" won't be available. We take their services for granted. They were "superheroes" the past few weeks during the flooding, and last summer during the fires west of town.
It is recommended and far safer to have the trained, uniformed professionals fight the fires, perform the rescues, and stop the crimes, but when they can't be there, heroes not in uniform step in and save lives and property.
It happens every day. It happened in a mobile home park during the floods this year, and it happened in 1962 in Mentryville. You see it when someone directs traffic around an auto accident, calls 911, drops off food at a food bank, donates to disaster relief, or coaches a youth sports team. They get little thanks, and seldom any recognition.
So, thank you, to all of you who are a hero for the rest of us. You may never want nor get any other thanks. And now, 43 years later: Thanks, Dan. You're the next-best hero, after Dad, I've ever known.
Darryl Manzer lived in the Santa Clarita Valley oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s as a teenager. He now lives in Virginia.