Mar 062014
 

A CASKET FULL OF ICE

Thomas Gilbert Gregerson July 13,1903 – August 28,1931
This Article provide to Cal Fire Museum by Dan Dulitz,
A Contributor to the San Luis Obisbo RU Newsletter

The summer of 1931 was one of the most damaging fire seasons in the history of the Western United States.
The state was in the worst drought on record. Fires had been burning in all western states since May. On the 19th of May, Governor Rolph issued a proclamation to the people of the State of California and established a California Fire Emergency Committee. The proclamation called on all state and local agencies, as well as every civic body, to fully cooperate in the prevention and suppression of wildfires.

Statewide, over 2,800 fires occurred on private land during the 1931 fire season, burning nearly 900,000 acres. Forty five percent of those fires were incendiary in origin or caused from unlawful debris burning. The Great Depression was taking its toll and unemployment was high. Wildfires represented employment opportunities and arson was rampant. The State Board of Forestry proclaimed that “every man without food and shelter is potentially a criminal within 24 hours of being deprived of these necessities of life.”

Before the end of August, the state’s $200,000 emergency fire suppression fund was totally expended and the State Board of Forestry begged the Director of Finance for more.

San Luis Obispo County was having its share of wildfires. Grain farmers lost thousands of acres of wheat and barley to fire. Grass and brush fires broke out nearly every day. Towards the end of that 1931 month of August, the men responsible for wildland fire protection were exhausted and tapped out.

The County of San Luis Obispo had recently (May of 1930) contracted with the fledgling California Division of Forestry. Under the Department of Natural Resources, the Division offered counties a state paid forest ranger, a unified wildland fire protection system and access to the statewide emergency fire fighting fund in exchange for a county funded operating budget. The state men also told the county that they would no longer need to fund seasonal county fire wardens and patrolmen. San Luis Obispo County allocated $7,500 in fire suppression operating funds for fiscal year 1931/32.

The state ranger assigned to San Luis Obispo was Allan O. Gossett, a stocky and rugged 38 year old native of Cottonwood in Tehama County. Raised on a ranch, Gossett was an expert horseman and outdoorsman. He had worked for the Forest Service as a forest guard in the late teens and 1920’s. He and his brother Ross took correspondence courses in forestry to prepare for the state’s ranger exam. Both were hired on by the state in early 1930. Gossett was right away well liked in the county. He fit in with the rural agricultural community, could talk their language. Rather than wear a badge and formal uniform, Gossett donned a khaki shirt, pants tucked into Wellington boots, and a soft brimmed Stetson hat. He gave the image of one of the boys rather than an authoritative outsider. He was also a shrewd politician. During the 1931/32 county budget negotiations, Gossett told the board of supervisors that if the county would allocate $2,500 to build up a new county fire truck, the state would match it with a brand new Model A Ford “mountain fire truck”. The supervisors agreed. Gossett did not tell them that the state truck had been budgeted for San Luis Obispo long before and would be delivered regardless.

In 1931, Gossett was allocated money from the state to hire an assistant. He found just the man he wanted in Walter Morland Lynch. Lynch was raised on a ranch in San Miguel, in the north end of San Luis Obispo County. Walter was lanky and tall, with blue eyes and red hat. He loved to cowboy and worked on ranches in California and Arizona. The Depression found him married for the second time with two young children, and no employment. He went back to San Miguel and got a job as an insurance salesman, which he loathed, in nearby Paso Robles. Lynch took the state ranger exam with hopes of getting back into the outdoors.
Gossett hired Lynch as his assistant ranger in the spring of 1931. In addition to Rangers Gossett and Lynch there were, throughout the county, voluntary county and state fire wardens. These men were private citizens authorized to enforce fire laws and to organize and direct firefighting operations. They also had the authority to conscript citizen firefighters during an emergency.
Most of the fire wardens were ranchers and farmers, long time locals who knew the country and had a basic knowledge of fire fighting techniques. They were an important and integral part of the county’s wildland fire protection system. The arrival of the Division of Forestry into San Luis Obispo County the prior year had ended the pay status for the voluntary wardens. Some became disgruntled and quit, but most stayed on.
Manpower for fighting fire was provided mostly from unskilled pick-up labor, men temporarily enlisted into service at the going rate of 25 to 35 cents per hour.

The county had given Ranger Gossett an office and some storage space at the County Road Department yard on Santa Barbara Street in San Luis Obispo. His wife Rita was the unpaid secretary and dispatcher. In 1931 Gossett’s equipment inventory included several county owned vehicles: a 1926 Star delivery truck, a 1926 Dodge, a Graham Brothers 1 Vi ton truck, and a Ford flatbed. These vehicles carried hand tools, gunny sacks, sprinkler cans, and canteens. Small tanks or barrels were used to carry water for the sacks and sprinklers. A new county funded Reo fire truck was being built up in the road department shop but was still months away from completion. One gem in the inventory was that recently delivered California Division of Forestry 1931 Ford Model A fire truck. This was the county’s first “mountain fire truck” with a pump and a water tank. There were not yet any “sit-tight” paid suppression crews available, but Gossett manned the equipment with volunteers and kept them staged throughout the county. Ranger Gossett
rented his personal car and horse back to the county to use for his job related transportation needs.

While the state and the county held the responsibility for protecting the private lands from fire, the protection of the National Forests fell on the United States Forest Service. The Forest Service had a presence within San Luis Obispo since 1906 when the 360,000 acre San Luis Forest Reserve was first created. Rangers and forest guards managed these lands and slowly built improvements. By 1931 the Forest Reserve had been incorporated into the Santa Barbara National Forest as the San Luis District. The Cerro Alto Guard Station was constructed in 1908 and was located about halfway between Morro Bay and Atascadero; accessible only by horse or mule before the highway was built. In 1926, the High Mountain Lookout was completed on a ridge between Pozo and Arroyo Grande.
In 1930, the one-room Pozo Ranger Station was established in down town Pozo. There were also ranger stations in Huasna and Lopez Canyon. These facilities were, most times, staffed by fire control personnel during the fire season and the stations served as work headquarters for the few full time employees.

In charge of the San Luis District of the Santa Barbara National Forest in 1931 was District Ranger Fletcher Hayward, a 39 year old World War I veteran. He began his career with the Forest Service prior to 1920 on the Angeles National Forest. Fletcher was well thought of in the community and by his superiors and men. Hayward was a California native; raised in Pasadena. Married with a young daughter, he lived in Santa Margarita with his family and used the Pozo Guard Station as his office.

Fletcher’s boss was Santa Barbara National Forest Supervisor Steven A. Nash-Boulden. Nash-Boulden had been the Supervisor of the Forest only since 1929, but was an experienced firefighter with twenty some years under his belt. He was a tough man to work for and was stuck in his ways. Nash-Boulden resisted new technology when it came to firefighting. He put his stock in horses and mules to deliver men, tools, food, and supplies to the fireline. He put experienced stockmen and highly trained horses and pack mules into all of his districts. He devised special pack saddles to carry bulky or extra long equipment on two mules at the same time. He also invented a diesel fuel powered flame thrower to be used for backfiring, that could be carried into remote areas on mules. The San Luis District of the Forest would not have a motorized fire truck until 1934.

Gossett and Hayward had become friends and close work associates. Whenever possible, they shared resources between their two agencies. Much of Gossett’s initial firefighting tool and supply inventory had been “borrowed” from the Forest Service. Both men served together on the board of directors of the newly formed (1929) Southern California Association of Foresters and Fire Wardens. The purpose of the Association was to foster cooperation and coordination of fire prevention and suppression efforts. However, the fact remained that the two agencies had differing responsibilities, policies, and objectives. This resulted in each often “doing their own thing” on a fire burning on both federal and state lands. It would be over 50 years before the two agencies would be able to coordinate their efforts in an efficient manner.
Even today, policy differences sometimes stand in the way of total cooperation. These men: Gossett, Lynch, Hayward, and Nash-Boulden, as well as the voluntary fire wardens, were the pioneers of the wildland fire protection system within San Luis Obispo County. They were under staffed, under funded, under trained, and under equipped, but they were dedicated and willing. And so it was in August of 1931.

Late Tuesday evening August 25, 1931, a fire started at the head of Santa Rita Grade west of Cayucos and was pushed by strong northwest winds. It would become known, during the next few days as the Santa Rita Fire. Arson was suspected but the actual cause of the fire was never determined. Detection of the fire was delayed by hours due to a heavy pall of smoke and ash in the north county from a 65,000 acre brush fire in southern Monterey County. When the fire finally was reported, Ranger Lynch, State Voluntary Fire Wardens Wesley Wimmer and Claude Jack from Paso Robles, as well as personnel from the Forest Service, drafted pick-up firefighters from San Luis Obispo and the North County and put them to work on the fireline. These men signed on for 30 cents per hour plus meals. By noon on Wednesday the fire had traveled east between the Old Creek and Toro Creek drainages, and was two miles into the National Forest. The Standard Oil tank farm north of Morro Bay was threatened but crews knocked the flames down before any damage occurred. By the end of the day, over 200 men were on the fireline and some 2,000 acres had burned.

 

 

The specific organization, strategies and tactics used on this fire are not known. Certainly, the Forest Service had access to more professionally trained firefighters to be utilized as crew and sector bosses. The state relied more heavily on part time voluntary fire wardens and a few experienced local men to provide leadership to the crews on the ground. The fire would have been broken into sections, called sectors, with a man assigned to oversee each. Crews of men were assigned to each sector with a specific task. Qualification standards for the men enlisted or conscripted into firefighting service were fairly loose. A man selected for firefighter duty needed to be reasonably fit, sober, willing to work, and in possession of a sturdy pair of shoes or boots. Firefighting experience was not required.

Gossett’s strategy for the state portion of the fire must have been to keep it from crossing over to the south side of Morro Road (Highway 41 West) and to stop it west of the communities of Templeton and Atascadero. The Forest Service would also have wanted to keep the fire north of the highway to prevent it from continuing to burn through the National Forest onto the west Cuesta ridge, where it could have potentially threatened the City of San Luis Obispo.
There is no record as to whether fire bosses Gossett and Hayward coordinated their strategies or tactics. Firefighting tactics in the 1930’s were pretty much limited to what could be done with crews of men and hand tools. In grass and other light fuels, a common technique was for men to slap the flames with wet gunny sacks to knock the fire down, starting at the heel of the file and working up the flanks towards the head. Often, additional men would follow behind with sprinkler cans or back-pumps. If water was not available, firefighters would use wire brooms, shovels, and other hand tools to scrape the vegetation down to mineral soil. Constructing a control line like this was called “throwing up a ditch”, named for the fast moving crew of men throwing dirt up into the air with their shovels. Constructing a control line in brush and other heavy fuels was more difficult and time consuming, and a direct attack right on the fireline was often not possible due to the heat generated by the fire.

If weather and time were on their side, roads, natural bariers, and constructed line would be “fired out” in advance of the fire to create a wide break. Old-time firefighters have told of a technique where a small man is sent into the brush in advance of the fire. On hands and knees, with a box of matches and maybe an oiled wick, he would crawl through the brush firing out the understory from game trails and natural breaks. (This writer has seen the late California Division of Forestry Foreman Burley Mickey disappear into a patch of chamise brush on a fire in the Parkfield area of Monterey County and crawl out the other side, face black with soot and dirt, and a big grin on his face. Black smoke drifting towards the main fire was evidence of the effectiveness of Burley’s actions.)

Backfiring, or starting a fire in advance of the main fire in a manner where each fire will physically affect the other was, and still is, an effective tactic if executed correctly. Perfect timing and favorable wind, fuel and terrain conditions are critical to success. If all goes right, the backfire is sucked towards the main fire. The two fires meet, ran out of fuel, and are extinguished.

In grain or grass, terrain permitting, local ranchers and farmers would often construct firelines with tractors attached to discs or harrows. The use of mechanized equipment on fires back then was limited. An adequate number of wildland fire tracks would not be in the inventory until World War II. The Division of Forestry’ would not operate a firefighting bulldozer in San Luis Obispo County until 1943, and it would be more than thirty’ years before retardant dropping aircraft would fly out of Paso Robles.

Two separate fire camps were set up. Bill Hartzell, who was living on the Klondike Ranch in Cayucos, recalled in 2010 that he, along with his mother and aunt, delivered lunches to the firefighters, which included his father and uncle, at the state camp. Bill described the location of the camp as being on the Cardoza Ranch. The two Cyprus trees which flanked the entrance to the fire camp are still there, five and a half miles northeast of Cayucos on Santa Rita/Old Creek road. The creek crossing has long since washed out, but you can still see where the old road switch-backed its way up the hill. The Forest Service set up their fire camp at the Cerro Alto Guard Station. These camps are where men were organized, rested, and fed, and where firefighting supplies were stored.

Meanwhile, numerous other fires were burning in Creston, San Luis Obispo, and Arroyo Grande, taxing the county’s available resources. Six crew leaders, a camp boss, and a sector boss, as well as Assistant Forest Supervisor Murphy were brought up from Santa Barbara by the Forest Service. The Division of Forestry sent Ranger Cecil Metcalf from Tulare County over to assist Gossett. More men were needed so Gossett commandeered two stake-side trucks from the County Road Department and sent a couple of his fire wardens down to Santa Maria to comb the fields and packing sheds for firefighters. Forty men were signed up and transported up to the state fire camp Wednesday night. One of those men was 28 year old Thomas Gilbert Gregerson. Gregerson was born in Minnesota on July 13, 1903 to Norwegian born immigrants. He grew up in Winnebego, graduated from high school, and worked for the Co-Operative Poultry Association, as well as at his father’s shoe shop. At age 19, Tom married 25 year Norma Peterson, a local high school teacher. In 1926 Norma gave birth to a daughter, Patricia. The following year, and for whatever reason, Tom and his family moved to Los Angeles with Norma’s mother and sister. It is not known what Tom did in Los Angeles, but after the Depression hit, he traveled throughout Southern California while Norma and Patricia stayed at home with her family. The 1930 census taker found Thomas in the San Bernardino County Jail. His offence is unknown. Thousands of out of work men came to San Bernardino seeking employment in the orchards and packing houses. It was a rough and tumble town and Tom could have gotten into any kind of trouble there. Out of jail in 1931, he made is way up to the Santa Maria Valley and found work as a receiving clerk in a packing house. He was living in Sisquoc with several friends and co-workers. The packing season was coming to a close and layoffs were certain. Tom was more than happy to volunteer as a firefighter for five or six dollars a day.

Thursday the 27th did not go well. The fire had advanced into the Paradise Valley area west of Atascadero, threatening homes and outbuildings. The Atascadero Fire Department activated their resources to protect the town, inhabited by a little less than 3,000 people. The new state Model A fire truck was sent up to help. Gossett had been holding the truck in Santa Margarita with a crew of volunteers to be used to respond to the numerous new fire starts which had been occurring in the county. To make matters worse, the fire had re-kindled on the west side near Cayucos. Resources being used at the head of the fire were sent to assist the crews on the coast. Needing more men, Gossett ordered freight trains traveling through Atascadero stopped and help was enlisted from railroad crews and itinerant men riding the rails.

By Thursday afternoon fingers of the fire were into the Atascadero Estates at the northwest corner of the town. Jim Dulitz recalled standing on the roof of their house on San Gregorio Road with a charged garden hose while his father put a disk line around the house and hay barn with his Cat 30 tractor. Jim was only nine years old but remembered that the heat was intense and that their stubble field turned black before his eyes. When the sun went down on Thursday, the Santa Rita Fire had consumed over 9,000 acres and 300 men were fighting the fire.

Gregerson’s crew assignment for Thursday is not known, but on Friday the 28th, Gregerson was working the fire in a canyon at Devil’s Gap, a 1250 feet elevation pass four miles west of Atascadero on Morro Road. Today, Los Altos Road is directly north and the Summit Hills development and Frog Pond Mountain are to the south. From the summit, Atascadero Creek drains to the east and Morro Creek to the west. Both drainages are rugged and steep, especially Morro Creek. The vegetation in this area is varied. Fields of solid brush are mixed with open oak-woodland with patches of grassland. Most of the south facing draws and canyons are brush covered, while bay trees and sycamores inhabit the moist drainages.

This section of the fire was the responsibility of the state and under the direction of the Division of Forestry. It is likely that Ranger Metcalf, from Tulare, had been given control of the fire at this time, to allow Gossett to manage his overall operation, as there were multiple fires burning in the county at the same time.

The exact location Gregerson’s fireline assignment is not known. It is probable that all of the 40 men enlisted from Santa Maria were kept together, organized into two or more hand crews. Experienced men or fire wardens would have been attached as crew bosses. Newspaper accounts stated that Gregerson was “trapped in a circle of fire while battling the flames which crept down the canyon”, and ” unable to escape the fire that slowly closed in about him”.

It is possible that a shift in the wind caused the fire to behave unexpectedly. A weather front moved into the county Friday and Saturday causing isolated showers. This passing front may have influenced the direction of the wind. Changes in wind direction are also common in the coastal mountains during the afternoons as the cool marine air interacts with the warming inland air. What actually happened will never be known. State Fire Warden R. B. Cavanaugh, a Santa Margarita native from a pioneer San Luis Obispo County family, was working in the vicinity, most likely as a crew boss, and discovered Gregerson. His clothes were completely burned off and his entire body was severely burned. Cavanaugh reported the tragedy to his superiors and help was summoned.

Harry Gray rushed his ambulance to the scene and took Gregerson to the Atascadero Hospital were he died at 3:00 p.m. that Friday. Just before his death, he regained consciousness for a few seconds and told the hospital staff that his parents lived in Winnebago, Minnesota. The body was taken to the Harry S. Gray Chapel and Crematorium in Atascadero.

Somehow, County Coroner Richardson was able to determine the cause of death, gather up five witnesses, summon 10 jurors, and conduct a coroner’s inquest that Friday evening. Cecil Metcalf and Robert Cavanaugh were two of the witnesses. A transcript of the witness statements has been lost to history or, more likely, the proceedings were never written down in the first place.

The San Luis Obispo Coroner’s Register listed the jury’s findings as follows: “We, the coroner’s jury, find that Tom Gregerson met his death from shock resulting from third degree burns suffered while fighting fire in the sixth district of the state of California. No cause of infliction of burns was ascertained, but in our opinion, they possibly resulted from either negligence or from entire lack of system or knowledge of handling men, on the part of those in charge of the firefighters and of fighting the fire. We recommend further investigation”.

A positive change in the weather, with cooler temperatures and high humidity allowed fire fighters to contain the Santa Rita blaze on Saturday August 28th. The fire consumed 15,000 acres, destroyed one home, numerous barns and outbuildings, two chicken ranches, and several wooden bridges. Another 50 or so men were impressed for patrol and “mop-up” work, and to allow relief for the other fire fighters. Over four hundred firefighters had fought the fire, only a handful with any formal fire fighting training.

Mr. Gray, ambulance operator and funeral home director, must have been profoundly affected by his involvement in the fire and Gregerson’s accident. On Saturday afternoon he drove around the fireline in a Ford truck carrying a brass handled redwood coffin. To the firefighters shock, and then delight, the coffin was filled with much relished ice. Gray said: “Couldn’t find anything big enough for this load so I grabbed a box from the storeroom”. Mr. Gray spent the rest of the afternoon making ice deliveries to weary firefighters.

Thomas Gregerson’s remains were shipped by train to Winnebago, accompanied by Howard LeMay, a friend and co-worker who was on the fireline with him. Norma left five year old Patricia with her mother and traveled to Minnesota for the services. Haakon and Thora Gregerson buried their 28 year old son at the Riverside Cemetery in Winnebago.

Both Gossett and Lynch were severely shaken by the incident. Gossett’s youngest daughter Sharon has said that the death of Gregerson always haunted her father. In spite of the critical coroner’s inquest verdict, Ranger Gossett maintained his reputation and credibility. There is no record of any further investigation of this incident, nor is there any evidence of any adverse actions taken against any person or organization. An editorial in the November 3, 1931 Daily Telegram gave praise to the efforts of Gossett and Lynch during the record breaking fire season and credited them with saving “thousands of dollars of actual money and priceless brush and forest lands”. Allan Gossett would continue as San Luis Obispo County’s Ranger-in-Charge until his retirement in 1958.

The lure of returning to the life of a cowboy must have been too strong for Assistant Ranger Walter Lynch. He was a good manager and firefighter, but had no stomach for the politics of the job. Lynch returned to the cowboy life and ended up working on the Awl Ranch in Bolinas, California where he died in 1951.

United States Forest Seivice District Ranger Hayward soon promoted and continued his career on the Cleveland and San Bernardino National Forests in Southern California. Fletcher Hayward died in San Bernardino in 1978.

For the next twenty two years, Norma Gregerson continued to live in the same house on Del Valle Drive in Los Angeles with her mother and daughter Patricia. Patricia graduated from the University of Southern California in 1948, married and moved to Cupertino, just west of San Jose. Norma moved north to join Patricia after her mother’s death in 1953. Norma never remarried and died in 1972. Patricia died in 1983.

 Posted by at 2:59 PM

  2 Responses to “A Casket Full of Ice”

  1. Very good story with good, detailed information. I worked at the Pozo station in 1977 and 1978 as what we called the TTO (Tank Truck Operator) back in those days. My supervisors were Gary Montgomery and Bob Stone. When I first got to Pozo Jay Star was the foreman. Later on Bob Cheek from the San Bernardino N.F. became the foreman. I also had come from the San Bernardino N.F. (Sycamore Station) our near Oak Glen and Lytle Creek.
    I really liked living at Pozo even though it was “way out” in the country. Along with the Pozo crew we had the La Panza crew with us at the Pozo station. The La Panza station was made up of two old travel trailers with no electricity. Water was provided through a spring. The workers that made up the La Panza/Pozo crews along with the supervisors were among the very best I had ever worked with. Pat Watham (Wathan?) was the Fire Prevention Officer back then and was a good, honest and trusted man like the crew members were. I apologize if I have mis-spelled anyone name here – it has been m,any years ago but still a very good and happy memory.

  2. Great story! And a very interesting piece of history.

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