SAN LUIS OBISPO COUNTY, Calif. - Cal Fire/San Luis Obispo County Fire Department paid tribute Thursday to four firefighters that were killed in the line of duty on Aug. 15, 1979.
A special ceremony was held at a memorial site located near the site of the fire along Highway 166, a few miles west of New Cuyama.
The men who lost their lives were Captain Ed Marty, and firefighters Ron Lorant, Steve Manley and Scott Cox.
Each of them worked out of the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CDF) Nipomo Station.
"We are here to pay tribute, honor and remember the four courageous firefighters assigned to CDF Engine 5373, who tragically lost their live on the Spanish Ranch Fire on this day 40 years ago," said Cal Fire/SLO County Fire Dept. Chief Scott Jalbert. "We never want to forget them, their stories, their sacrifice and their unknowing contribution towards the safety of our firefighters today tomorrow."
For about an hour, friends and fellow firefighters spoke about the four men who were lost due to an unexpected change in the fire behavior fueled by extreme wind.
"I've been a firefighter for over 40 years and I've seen a lot of fire activity and seen a lot of extreme fire actively, but I've never seen quite like that," said Jeff Lannon, a firefighter working the blaze just before the arrival of Engine 5373.
The men arrived at the fire location at 4 p.m. and within 25 minutes, were overrun by the flames.
"The fire creeped through that retardant line, ran up that hill, you can see the hill it ran up behind me, and then the wind pattern came out of nowhere," said Lannon. "At the time, the crew was hiking up the ridge line and they were trapped up there, they didn't have anywhere to go, they didn't have a safety route."
The incident remains one of the darkest days in the history of San Luis Obispo County.
"I'd think about those guys on fires that throughout the rest of my career and I worked 35 years doing this," said Dan Trabucco, a firefighter at the time and roommate of Marty. "It seems like almost yesterday. I remember that whole day. I was out of the area, but they called me and let me know what happened and I can remember the phone call was like yesterday."
Many of the speakers during the event mentioned how the tragedy quickly changed how state firefighters worked in the field.
"The firefighters in 1979 in Cal Fire, we called it CDF then, did not have fire shelter and within two weeks after the accident, every firefighter in California was issued a fire shelter," said Robert Lewin, former Cal Fire/SLO County Fire Dept. Chief.
Lewin added how the Spanish Fire is used as a teaching tool for firefighters, not just on the Central Coast, but anywhere.
"It's a lessons learned memorial," said Lewin. "It's designed in such a way that firefighters for long into the future can come out here and understand what happened that tragic day and learn from it so it doesn't happen again."
During the ceremony, it was announced public access is being planned for the memorial site, which includes a plaque and viewing area, along with four oak trees that are planted in the memory of each firefighter.
There are also plans to create special markers, one each for the men, to be placed on the mountainside that would be accessible to the public along a hiking trail.
"I don't think that anyone who was around back then will ever forget this," said Trabucco. "This memorial is really awesome in that they have it and I look forward to them getting something up on the hill."