Local homes destroyed in ’67 wildfire

by Juanita Lovret
Reprinted courtesy of the Tustin News

Tinder, dry countryside, Santa Ana winds, and incendiary materials are a sure prescription for fires such as the Paseo Grande which swept through the Tustin foothills in October 1967.
Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives

Fear prevailed over Tustin residents and their neighbors on the day before Halloween in 1967.

All thoughts of trick and treat, parties or costumes were abandoned as the community anxiously watched the dark clouds of smoke sweeping in from the northeast. Suddenly a deep red flush crossed the sky and waves of flames crested into the Cowan Heights area. The wildfire that started in Riverside County had arrived in Tustin.

Newspaper accounts of its origin differed. One news report said “possibly started by equestrians.” Another claimed “believed to have been started by children playing with matches.” Regardless of its source, the Paseo Grande Fire, as it was labeled, scorched 50,000 acres before it was subdued.

The fear that Tustin residents felt was well-deserved. As the flames raced across the canyons between Riverside County and Orange County in conditions labeled “the driest season since 1887,” out -of- control fire damaged or destroyed thousands of acres of vegetation, hundreds of dwellings and caused millions of dollars of damage before firefighters were able to contain it on Nov. 2.

In the Lemon Heights-Santa Ana Canyon-Cowan Heights area alone 66 homes were destroyed at a collective value of more than $2.5 million. Enforced evacuations limited the loss of lives, but one woman was killed when she was struck by a runaway vehicle and at least nine other people, including four firefighters, were injured. Fifty cattle, horses and sheep were believed to have perished.

Santa Ana winds blowing at more than 50 miles an hour propelled the flames quickly across the area. Jim Sleeper, a Tustin resident as well as Orange County historian, described the situation well when he wrote in 1971 “Nothing can compare to the devastation wrought by a santana pushing a brush fire. Indelibly seared on the memory of countians are such incendiary nightmares as the Green River Fire (1948), which blackened 46,000 acres and consumed 22 homes; the Stewart (1958), 66,400 acres and 16 homes; and … the Paseo Grande (1967), 47,639 acres and 66 homes.”

The combination of dry conditions and Santa Ana winds has been responsible for many fires in this area. More than 100 conflagrations have been recorded since the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection began keeping records in 1914. The cost of these fires has run high: 1914 to 1939, $45,686; 1931 to 1950, $64,184; 1951 to 1970, $196,858; 1971 to 1990, $169, 643; 1991 to 2008, $72,735.

Interestingly, the period in which the Paseo Grande fire took place recorded the highest dollar damage. Larry Holmes was Orange County Fire Chief at the time of the Paseo Grande disaster and directed firemen from throughout the county as well as those who came from all over the state to aid in battling the blaze. Tustin’s combination of paid and volunteer firemen worked around the clock under the direction of Fire Chief Morgan Hilton