By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – More than 50 years ago, a group of young Tupelo men went west to fight a force of nature.
The El Cariso Hotshots were based near Lake Elsinore in California, and they traveled from fire to fire, working with axes, hoes and rakes to save lives and property.
“We were an initial attack firefighting crew that they put in first, normally in a remote area,” said Dan Mathews, 71, of Tupelo.
“They’d get us as close to the fire as they could get us, and we’d make firebreaks,” added Jimmy Floyd, 71, of Tupelo.
A fire needs oxygen, fuel and heat, and a firebreak is an attempt to remove the fuel by taking out trees, bushes and brush to create a 10-foot gap in the fire’s path.
“If the trucks could get there, they’d use bulldozers,” Floyd said.
Each team had 15 members. The first group of five went after the big stuff, the second group dug up the stumps and the third group used heavy-duty rakes called McLeods to clear out the remaining debris.
“You could tell who had the McLeod because you couldn’t see anything but his eyes,” said Sam Reedy, 71, of Fulton
“Dust,” said Stacy Russell, 71, of Itawamba County. “Just all over them.”
It was hard, grimy work made worse by nearby walls of flame and swirling smoke. No one died on the crew while the Tupelo men were on the job, but there were close calls that still cause the men to shake their heads.
Seven California canyons were named after seven young men who were killed a few years before the Tupelo group went west. Twelve were killed a few years later.
“My first time … we’d never seen a real fire. We were pumped to go,” Mathews recalled. “They had convict crews out there. They came back and we were going out. They were black, just coated. They were dazed. I said, ‘Maybe playtime is over.’”
Even with the obvious dangers, a spot on a hotshot crew was a coveted thing. It helped to have connections, and Mathews had a good one in 1961 in the form of a letter of recommendation from Mississippi Sen. John C. Stennis.
His file preceded him to California and it was marked “P.I.” in red for political influence.
“Everybody wanted to see who this was with his folder stamped ‘P.I.,’” Mathews said. “I went in with my Bermuda shorts on.”
Mathess worked that first year with Stacy Russell, who said about 2,200 applied and 32 got hired.
Buddy Vandiver, 71, of Richmond community in Lee County, was in California for a visit. The El Cariso Hotshots weren’t everyone’s idea of good summer work, so slots opened.
“I just went up there and got hired,” Vandiver said.
The next year, a slew of men from Tupelo had recommendations from Stennis, while Reedy tried Vandiver’s technique.
“They got rid of a couple of boys, so I got on,” he said.
Their non-fire days began with calisthenics and running, then fire education classes. They practiced making firebreaks and played mandatory games of volleyball to stay in shape.
They had Mondays and Tuesdays off, but fires tended to start on Saturdays and Sundays, and there was no time off when forests were burning.
“I went 42 days without a day off one time,” Reedy said.
They traveled to fires in California and Idaho, and were on call for wherever they were needed. They rode crammed into the back of open trucks and sat on wooden benches.
“I took my canteen out and poured water on the hood of that truck and said, ‘I christen thee Teddy Roosevelt,’” Reedy said.
“It was a rough-riding SOB,” Stacy Russell explained.
The trucks would get them as close to the action as possible, then the men would hike to the danger zone. Sometimes, helicopters flew them in three at a time.
They carried their own tools and packed light. Most of them bought canvas vests with plenty of pockets for fishing line and candy bars. They wore orange safety hats and orange, flame-resistant shirts.
“Man, they were hot,” said Frank Russell, 69, of Tupelo.
One fire gave them a view of the Hollywood sign. Another had them overlooking the Rose Bowl in Pasadena.
“The first fire I went to burned 35,000 acres,” said Milton Bradley, 72, of Oxford.
“The Idaho fire where we were caught burned 85,000 to 87,000 acres,” Stacy Russell said. “We didn’t put it out. The snow put it out.”
That Idaho fire was near the Montana border and turned out to be something truly scary. Mathews, Vandiver and Stacy Russell found themselves too close to the action and surrounded by flames.
“The fire blew up,” Stacy Russell said. “The wind got into it.”
With fire all around them, they took refuge on part of the mountain where a rock slide had knocked most of the fuel away.
They dug holes to offer some protection, then waited 36 hours for a rescue.
“We could see the helicopter coming to get us, but they couldn’t because of the fire,” Mathews said. “Let me tell you, that got to me.”
The Tupelo guys sustained no significant injuries during their adventures in 1961 and 1962.
“I got a little cinder on the cheek,” Vandiver said “That’s all.”
“We were going on a mountain road, and the fire was below us on the right,” Floyd said. “We had to get through and some of the sparks got him, but we got through.”
Fun and games
It wasn’t all back-breaking, life-threatening work. To show her appreciation, the wife of the Canadian ambassador gave the firefighters cases of beer.
“There were 20 of us in the back of a truck driving 80 miles and drinking hot Coors beer,” Vandiver said.
After another fire, some 1,000 firefighters met at a river for some relief. Photographic evidence from the day shows there were no bathing suits.
“And 10 rafts full of Girl Scouts rafted down the river,” Vandiver said.
A nudist colony was located near their home base, and Mathews said it was easy to find volunteers to make sure the colony was fire safe.
Tarantulas were put in helmets, and snakes were slipped into beds. Luckily for Floyd, the snake in his bed was dead.
“But I had to sleep with a bloody spot for a couple of weeks before they let us do laundry,” he said.
The fun and games and the serious work ended in the fall, and most of the Mississippi contingent got home in time for college classes.
They went on to be lawyers, judges, teachers, engineers, lawmakers and businessmen.
“We were just boys from Tupelo,” Floyd said. “We, all of us, became good, upstanding people in the community, you know.”
Some returned to California a few years ago for a reunion. They all live in Northeast Mississippi, so they can get together every so often to swap stories, some of which aren’t fit for a family newspaper.
They were young and immortal once, and traveled west to put that immortality to the test. They were brave and maybe a little crazy, but don’t call them stupid.
“If you went out there for the third year, you got to be a smokejumper. They dropped you in a parachute to fight fires,” Floyd said. “We were all smart enough not to go back the third year.”