The Cleveland National Forest had its first Hotshot Crew in the late 1950’s. This crew was mobile and represented the entire forest. In 1958 the crew was permanently located in the El Cariso area of the Trabuco Ranger District. This would be the first year of the El Cariso Hotshots, as they are known today.
The crew continued to work the entire forest, sometimes spending days in the Mt. Laguna area on project work. Their primary responsibility was still wildland fire suppression. The first superintendent of the crew was Danny Street. He was the superintendent in 1958 and 1959. On August 8, 1959 the crew experienced the first of two fire tragedies El Cariso would be involved in. The fire was the Decker Fire located in the foothills above Lake Elsinore. Seven people were overrun by fire and lost their lives. Three were members of the El Cariso Hotshot Crew.
In 1960, Glen Kay took over as interim Hotshot Superintendent. In 1961 Doug Campbell became Superintendent and remained through the 1962 fire season. In 1961 El Cariso became the first, and one of only two Interregional Hotshot Crews. The other crew was Del Rosa on the San Bernardino National Forest. A C-46 airplane was kept on call at Ontario Airport to transport the two crews upstate or out of region. Campbell's successor was Marv Stout and Gordon King followed him.
Gordon King was Superintendent at the time of the tragic Loop Fire in which 12 members of the El Cariso Hotshots perished. This fire occurred on November 1, 1966. The post Loop Fire era for the El Cariso Crew included many fires with no significant events. The crew Superintendents following Gordon included Steve Gallegos, Ron Campbell, Richard Aguillar, Greg Davis, Mike Smith, Hal Mortier, Ralph Chavez, Allen Johnson, Don Feser, and the current Superintendent Jay Bertek.
Crew size has varied over the years. In the early years through about 1970, the crew consisted of two fifteen-person squads, two foremen, an Assistant Superintendent, and the Superintendent. Today's crew make-up is seventeen firefighters, two Captains (Foremen), and the Superintendent.
The El Cariso Hot Shots were originally housed across the road from the El Cariso Engine Station on the Ortega Highway. Buildings included Quonset Huts, pit toilets, and a combination crew kitchen/training hall. In the early 1970's the crew was relocated to the Los Pinos Forestry Camp, Approximately 3 miles north and west of the original site. Here the crew shared the facility with Orange County youth offenders. A final move has put the crew in their current location. The El Cariso Hotshot camp is adjacent to the Forestry Camp on Cleveland National Forest land and they no longer coexist with the youth offenders.
When the crew was first formed, they used a cartoon version of a ruptured duck as their logo. A firefighter had to participate in hotline fire line construction as an El Cariso Hotshot to earn the right to wear the ruptured duck. Ruptured ducks are found today on tee shirts, hats, belt buckles, decals, and even body extremities in the form of tattoos.
The El Cariso Interregional Hotshot Crew is one of about (65) elite firefighting crews in the nation. Throughout the crew's almost 40 years, El Cariso has established quite a fire history. They have fought fires in every western state multiple times and have also traveled to the Southeast. They have participated in the suppression of approximately 500 different fires and have put in countless hours in the process. El Cariso has been involved in every large fire siege since their inception and most firefighters with any fire savvy at all have heard of this crew. Their reputation and performance has created a great tradition that is sure to continue. It is unknown how many current and ex-El Cariso Hotshots there are. Chances are conversation with any of them would reveal their time with El Cariso as some of the most memorable times of their life.