July 24, 1977
Los Angeles County Fire Department (CA)
Number of Line-of-Duty Deaths:
In July 1977, the Angeles National Forest witnessed the outbreak of the most significant wildfire in California for that year. The Middle Fire of 1977 left a profound impact on the landscape and the communities in its path. The fire originated on the afternoon of Sunday, July 24, 1977 and quickly gained momentum due to a combination of factors, including dry conditions, 40-mile an hour winds, and steep terrain. As flames rapidly spread northeast through the forest, authorities scrambled to contain the inferno—but the challenging conditions made it an arduous task.
The firefighting efforts were characterized by intense aerial assaults from water-dropping helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, as well as ground crews creating firebreaks and using controlled burns to prevent further expansion. During nighttime operations, helicopter pilots used night-vision goggles to operate and map the fire’s advancement.
The flames converged from three directions and spread northeast on the steep terrain of Mt. Gleason in the San Gabrielle Mountains, just 15 miles north of Pasadena. While this area was not densely populated, the fire threatened the drought-stricken Los Angeles County Timber Pine Forest at an abandoned Nike missile site.
The Mt. Gleason Experimental Ranger Station was directly impacted by the fire. The station was home to the radio repeater system for anyone operating in the area. This caused communication challenges for the firefighters due to an overload of radio frequencies—and consequently, helicopter operations struggled to establish clear communication with the heliport manager.
Shortly before 10:30 pm on July 24th, two helicopters returning from a mapping mission collided in mid-air near the Mill Creek Ranger Station Heliport. As a result of the collision, Los Angeles County Fire Department Pilot Thomas Paul Grady and his co-pilot Theodore Hellmers sustained critical injuries. Grady was airlifted to a hospital, where sadly, he succumbed to his injuries. Hellmers was rushed to a nearby hospital via ground transportation. Two firefighters aboard the U.S. Forest Service helicopter, Robert Thayvean and Ronald Black, also suffered minor injuries as a result of the collision.
The Middle Fire of 1977 ultimately consumed over 3,500 acres of wilderness, leaving behind a scarred landscape that would take years to recover. It stands as a stark reminder of the unpredictable and devastating nature of wildfires—and the importance of proactive measures in preventing and managing such natural disasters.
It also is a solemn reminder of the risks and sacrifices our wildland firefighters make to protect lives, property, and natural resources during wildfire events.