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Local filmmakers examine the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire in new, award-winning documentary, FireStorm '77 

click to enlarge TRIAL BY FIRE Dennis R. Ford (pictured, right), executive producer and co-editor of FireStorm '77, was a 20-year-old airman stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base during the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire. Although he had no prior firefighting experience, he was assigned to fight the deadly wildfire as an augmentee.

Courtesy Photos By Glenn Fuss

TRIAL BY FIRE Dennis R. Ford (pictured, right), executive producer and co-editor of FireStorm '77, was a 20-year-old airman stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base during the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire. Although he had no prior firefighting experience, he was assigned to fight the deadly wildfire as an augmentee.

While taking a film course at Allan Hancock College back in 2016, Lompoc local Dennis R. Ford would occasionally stay after class to chat with his professor, Christopher Hite. It was often small talk about movies they mutually enjoyed, but one conversation took an interesting turn that would alter both men's lives for the next half a decade.

In the late '70s, Ford was a 20-year-old airman stationed at Vandenberg Air Force Base. On Dec. 20, 1977, more than a thousand firefighters and augmentee firefighters—including Ford, who had no prior firefighting experience—were tasked with fighting a massive wind-driven wildfire, which resulted in four fatalities, 65 injuries, and nearly 10,000 acres burned.

After hearing Ford's recollection of the traumatic event, known today as the 1977 Honda Canyon Fire, Hite recognized it above all as a story that needed to be shared.

"He [Ford] spent a minute describing what this experience in his life was. It was just so compelling what he told me," Hite said. "And it was very cinematic."

Hite's first recommendation to Ford was to at the very least get his experience down on paper. Ford agreed and started writing about his perspective of the tragic fire in the form of a screenplay, during one of Hite's screenwriting courses.

click to enlarge FIRE WALK WITH ME Allan Hancock College film professor Christopher Hite (pictured) not only sat in the director's chair during the making of FireStorm '77, but served as cinematographer and co-editor of the documentary as well. - COURTESY PHOTOS BY GLENN FUSS
  • Courtesy Photos By Glenn Fuss
  • FIRE WALK WITH ME Allan Hancock College film professor Christopher Hite (pictured) not only sat in the director's chair during the making of FireStorm '77, but served as cinematographer and co-editor of the documentary as well.

After several subsequent discussions on the topic, the pair arrived at, "Why don't we just make our own documentary?" Hite said.

"And that's where Joe came into the picture," added Hite, commenting on local author Joseph N. Valencia joining the project as a producer and technical consultant.

Valencia was part of the Santa Barbara County Strike Team that arrived to fight the Honda Canyon Fire, taking part in two fire overruns and two rescues during the tragedy. He was only 19 at the time. In 2004, Valencia wrote a book, Beyond Tranquillon Ridge, to recount not only his firefighting efforts but those of more than 100 interviewees.

After Ford and Hite reached out to Valencia about a potential film adaptation of his book, "The next thing you know, all three of us were at a Starbucks over coffee, deciding on how to produce a documentary," Hite said, which was the start of a four-year process in getting FireStorm '77 made.

"The film does something that the book can't do, which is when you see the faces of the people we're interviewing. You see their emotion and you see how the effects of that fire 40, almost 45 years ago now still affects them," Valencia said.

While bringing back several sources from Valencia's book for on-camera interviews for the documentary, the filmmakers also used television footage and radio transmissions archived from the event.

"The original recordings from dispatch to people in the field were preserved, luckily. We use the recordings throughout the film, and it adds an eerie quality to it because there's moments when you can tell there's urgency to find someone who's not responding on the other end of the radio," said Hite, who took on the roles of director, cinematographer, and co-editor of FireStorm '77. "Those are the moments we really tried to tap into. That's where cinema can really go places."

Out of the various radio transmissions collected, there's one recording from Fire Chief Billy Bell—who was tragically entrapped and killed during the Honda Canyon Fire—that Ford hasn't been able to shake off.

"I still get the heebie-jeebies when I hear Chief Bell say, 'Somebody, I'm stuck in here and I can't get out,'" Ford said. "That just reverberates in my head almost every day, to some degree."

click to enlarge REVISITING THE FLAMES FireStorm '77 producer and technical consultant Joseph N. Valencia (pictured) was part of the Santa Barbara County Strike Team that arrived to fight the Honda Canyon Fire in 1977. He was only 19 at the time. In 2004, Valencia wrote a book, Beyond Tranquillon Ridge (which FireStorm '77 is adapted from), to recount not only his firefighting efforts, but those of more than 100 interviewees. - COURTESY PHOTOS BY GLENN FUSS
  • Courtesy Photos By Glenn Fuss
  • REVISITING THE FLAMES FireStorm '77 producer and technical consultant Joseph N. Valencia (pictured) was part of the Santa Barbara County Strike Team that arrived to fight the Honda Canyon Fire in 1977. He was only 19 at the time. In 2004, Valencia wrote a book, Beyond Tranquillon Ridge (which FireStorm '77 is adapted from), to recount not only his firefighting efforts, but those of more than 100 interviewees.

Ford was interviewed himself, of course, and served as an executive producer and co-editor on the final film, which was completed around November of 2020. Since then, FireStorm '77 has been entered into more than a dozen film festivals and has won at least five awards. At the 2021 San Luis Obispo International Film Festival, it won Best Documentary Feature Film in the Central Coast Filmmaker Showcase.

One of the next festivals FireStorm '77 will be a part of is the Cambria Film Festival's SummerFest, which runs from Aug. 20 to Aug. 23. The film can also currently be streamed through MalibuFlix (which is available to subscribers for a monthly fee of $5.99).

"It's relatively cheap. I remember before the pandemic, it was like 100 bucks to go to a movie theater," Ford said. "With streaming, I can tell anybody in the world to watch the film, and they can. I have family in Australia and they've all seen it."

Valencia said he believes the film is resonating with audiences because it tells "a classic story of human struggle, of people trying to do the best they can under dire circumstances and making it through—not just making it through a fire, but making it through 44 years of not being able to tell their story." Δ

Calendar Editor Caleb Wiseblood is already streaming. Send comments to cwiseblood@newtimesslo.com.

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