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Commentaries, otherwise unpublished

When Johnny Cash walked out of a burning ring of fire

Sometimes culture and fire collude, sometimes they clash, and sometimes they just collide. When celebrities are involved, an episode can become a curious cipher on American fire, and when those celebrities are Johnny Cash and California condors, the event can transcend the quirky into the just plain bizarre. Of course it happened in Southern California.

In 1965 Johnny Cash was living in Casitas Springs, near Ojai. On June 27, he started a fire near Sespe Creek on the Los Padres National Forest. What actually happened is known generally but differs in specifics depending on the teller. In most accounts his pickup camper kindled a fire, or fires, either from a defective exhaust system which threw sparks when Cash, having stuck the truck off road, gunned the engine or (Cash's version) from an overheated, cracked wheel bearing that leaked oil onto a tire, which threw it onto roadside grass. His nephew, Damon Fiedler, who was with him, believed Cash had started a warming fire that got away from him when he was too drugged to stop it. The fire moved north toward McDonald Peak, threatening the Sespe Wildlife Area, a refuge for nesting condors.

Response was rapid. "It has the potential of a giant fire," a Forest Service spokesman told reporters. One account says Cash tried to swat it out and was injured; Damon claims the injury occurred when he (Damon) struck Cash with a stick before dragging him away from a growing ring of fire. At 4:30pm lookouts reported the smoke. A hundred firefighters quickly poured in, along with helijumpers and five air tankers. By midnight the fire had spread to over 500 acres (one account reports 700) and had drawn a force of 400. A California Department of Forestry inmate crew from San Luis Obispo and several hotshot crews joined, and then 150 Navy Seabees from Point Mugu. Investigators traced the fire's origin to the truck, and then to Cash.

Reports again vary on the damages. The camper was destroyed. Burned area topped out at 508 acres. Some accounts state that condor nests were fired, and others that condors themselves were killed ("49 of the refuge's 53 endangered condors"; a "count of fifty-three had been made before the fire; after the fire, it went down to nine"). The Forest Service insisted that the refuge was south of the road and the fire to the north, with winds driving the flames away. The court certainly thought the condors had been threatened if not harmed. It was close enough to scare everyone except Cash.

In Cash's words, "I was such a mess that I didn't care. I went into the depositions full of amphetamines and arrogance, refusing to answer their questions straight.
'Did you start this fire?'
'No. My truck did, and it's dead, so you can't question it.'
'Do you feel bad about what you did?'
'Well, I feel pretty good right now.'
'But how about driving all those condors out of the refuge?'
'You mean those yellow buzzards.'
'Yes, Mr. Cash, those yellow buzzards.'
'I don't give a damn about your yellow buzzards. Why should I care?'
And so on. It was just ugly, that's all."

What did get his attention was the cost of suppression. The U.S. District Attorney sued him for $125,127.52 ($917,099.85 in 2017 dollars). It got uglier when the Tribal Indian Land Rights Association of Van Nuys filed a retaliatory claim against the government on behalf of Cash (who was part Cherokee), threatening to lay claim to all national forest land in Southern California.

Cash eventually settled in 1969 for $82,000 and blasted the federal government, asserting that he was the only person ever sued for starting a fire. He wasn't, but neither of the other two celebrity writers who have admitted to starting wildfires, Henry Thoreau outside Concord and Mark Twain on the shores of Lake Tahoe, were hauled before magistrates.

By then Cash was flush with money from his Folsom Prison album, divorced and remarried, hosting the Johnny Cash show on TV, reborn spiritually, and heading to Nashville, Tennessee to live, far from chaparral and condors, and worries over falling into another ring of fire.

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