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Central Coast residents’ documentary of deadly 1977 fire featured in SLO International Film Festival

Posted at 8:31 AM, Mar 12, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-12 13:51:52-05

The story of a deadly fire near Vandenberg Air Force Base that killed four people in 1977 is being featured in a documentary during the San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. The three that led the project came together in the most unassuming way, but the trio all had the same vision; make sure the story is not forgotten.

A professor, his student, and a writer; three Central Coast residents tag teamed FireStorm ’77, a documentary film rehashing the events of the Honda Canyon Fire at Vandenberg Air Force Base on December 20th, 1977.

“By chance, we all came together,” said Dennis Ford, a former film student at Allan Hancock College, who was also an Airman at Vandenberg Air Force Base during the Honda Canyon Fire. “I’ve devoted 4-5 years to this project, and I’m going to do whatever it takes to get this story told.”

Ford went into great detail recounting his experience at the fire to his professor, Chris Hite.

“He didn’t know he was pitching me that day, but the way he described the film was just so visual, so compelling, I knew I wanted to be involved in telling this story,” said Chris Hite, head of production for FireStorm’77 and a professor of film at AHC.

Joe Valencia responded to the Honda Canyon Fire as a reserve fireman for the Santa Barbara County Strike Team. In 2004, Valencia wrote the book, Beyond Tranquillon Ridge, a recollection of the events of the 24-hour fire event.

“In my mind, I had these cinematic sceneries. People even mentioned that this should be a movie,” said Valencia. “Then all of a sudden, 12 years after writing the book, to meet Dennis and the possibility of the documentary of this was fantastic.”

Ford used Valencia’s novel to help write the screenplay for FireStorm’77 in 2017, and in 2018, the three started production. After 25 hours of interviews and multiple visits to the site of the fire and gravesites of the lives lost, the film was completed last fall and submitted to the SLO Film Fest.

“It is the biggest thing possible. It’s our neighborhood, and our neighborhood is acknowledging the fire. Even though it’s 40-some-odd years later, it is a big, big deal,” said Ford.

Ford and Valencia say the lack of technology and the way of thinking in the military and fire departments then were contributing factors to mistakes made that fateful day 44 years ago.

“We were in the Cold War at that point,” said Ford. “Because of the security issues, I believe it got in the way of fighting this fire. We had a lot of people protecting the facilities when they should have left the facilities and let the firemen come in and fight the fire.”

“My captain told us, 'Let’s learn from the past and move on.' There was no discussion of it. It was just held there for many years and kind of tucked under the rug,” said Valencia.

“For our losses back then, in a sense, it’s been rewarded by the knowledge and everything we’ve gained,” said Ford.

The trio wants to make sure the lives of Colonel Joseph Turner, Fire Chief Billy J. Bell, Assistant Fire Chief Eugene Cooper, and equipment operator Clarence MacAulley, are not forgotten.

“I really believe that these individual stories will really be impactful for the people that watch this film. I told our director and producer that I think it’ll knock their socks off. It’ll open their eyes on what firefighters really go through,” said Valencia.

For more information on FireStorm '77, click here.