Incident Name:  The Sanborn Fire on the Santa Clara Unit in the Santa Cruz Mountains near Saratoga Springs Resort, Saratoga, CA
Date: June 5, 1979, 1755 hrs
Personnel: Sam Morrison
Age: 21 years
Agency/Organization: CDF (now CAL FIRE)
Position: firefighter

Summary: On June 5, 1979, firefighter Sam Morrison and his crew were fighting a small fire in a steep creek drainage. Firefighters, including Sam, were focused on the suppression effort, working with McLeods and back pumps on fireline and a spot fire. Crewmembers did not realize that their capable fellow crew member was in trouble. In retrospect it appears that Sam Morrison wandered away from his crew as he became delirious, disoriented and lost. He was found the next morning. It was determined he died of pneumonia precipitated by heat stroke.

from Sam’s brother, Robert Morrison

Samuel Morrison


Stevens Creek Fire Station, CA-SCU Sta. 23 in Cupertino, CA, located 13326 Stevens Canyon Road, Cupertino, CA in the Stevens Creek County Park, above the Stevens Creek Reservoir

{mosmap lat=’37.286943’|lon=’-122.079172’|marker=’0’|text=’Santa Clara Unit Duty Station Location’}

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Reports, Documentation, Lessons Learned

  • California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (now CAL FIRE): Summary Report
  • Recommendations:
    • Firefighter training
      • Acclimatization to working conditions is a must. Require daily physical conditioning wearing protective clothing from the first day of employment (For new considerations regarding acclimating to heat, see the Webinar linked below.)
      • Reinforce identifying symptoms of heat exhaustion, stress and stroke (Handbook 1190, 3(B))
    • Supervisors
      • When it is safe, loosen protective clothing to allow more air flow
      • Encourage drinking of water and emphasize need to carry canteens when leaving vehicle
      • Maintain communication with your crew using radio, visual contact, and voice
      • Order rest breaks
      • Observe crews for heat stress
  • Through the years as a result of this heat stroke incident and others — most recently in 2011 in Texas — wildland firefighting agencies have renewed their efforts to understand the effects of heat, humidity, exertion, hydration and electrolytes on the human body. The science has progressed. Firefighting continues to be a Lessons Learned culture. As we know more, firefighters can become more aware to better care for themselves and their co-workers; and managers can better remain aware of the best ways to recognize and mitigate the influence of heat on firefighters. Most recently, renewed effort to educate all firefighters about hyperthermia includes the following resources:
  • California Death Index: Samuel P Morrison

Return to top Links:

  • Hotlist: Discussion of San Mateo County Fire History – 7/13-7/15/2012
  • From Prevent 43:

    Sam Morrision was a friend of mine. We grew up together and started our careers together when SCU was part of Region 5 under the old CDF system, Santa Clara Ranger Unit. His passing was difficult for a lot of us specifically his two FC and the FAE’s assigned to Stevens Creek when it was a two company house.

    Sam was a hard working incredibly strong man who had two speeds; fast and faster. Back in those days, Green pants and Tan shirts and no shelters yet, they came in 1980, you were supposed to lose the shirt and keep the greens on for the second layer. I was not at the fire but from what I was told, Sam still had his shirt on under his nomex and it was a very hot hot day. With his passing, lessons were learned and changes were made.

    The following year, a FC assigned to Stevens Creek and a mentor for many of us, Chester Knappsmith passed away on a fire in San Jose. A model 10 which I cant really remember who made them but a beast of a rig. Those details of the incident are horrible but, changes were made for the better. I wish to remember both Sam and Chester with fond thoughts and think that their actions may have saved many, many others for years to come. Chet, Sam, a real pleasure knowing you both and thanks for giving your all.

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Media Articles and Reports

Sent in by his family

Samuel MorrisonSamuel MorrisonSamuel Morrison

Samuel Morrison

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Photos, Videos, & Tributes

  • Sam Morrison’s name is on the California Fallen Firefighters Memorial wall in Sacramento, CA. Here’s a photo of his nephew and nieces highlighting his name many years later. How thankful we are for families and for the memorial wall.
    Samuel Morrison, Monument in Sacramento
  • Sam’s brother Robert Morrison has posted the images above, a number of others and Sam’s Obituary and photograph at Find a Grave. He also added a link in the comments section below.
  • It is unclear if Sam’s name is engraved on the National Fallen Firefighters Memorial in Maryland. That online database (USFA Memorial Database lookup) only goes back to 1981, although it is being updated to include and memorialize LODDs prior to 1981. If anyone has a photo of the names on the physical National Memorial for 1979, please let us know if Sam’s name is on it. If it’s not, that might be something to pursue, especially if family members would like to participate.

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Contributors to this article: Dale McGill, Prev43, Kevin Conant, M Barbour, AZ Trailblazer, Kevin G, Robert (Bob) Morrison


Please support the Wildland Firefighter Foundation



  • Kevin Conant says:

    Sam worked at the Stevens Creek Fire Station, CA-SCU Sta. 23 located 13326 Stevens Canyon Road, Cupertino, CA in the Stevens Creek County Park, above the Stevens Creek Reservoir.
    I went to Jr. High and High School with Sam. We worked together at that Station. I was off duty, attending classes at Columbia College the day of the fire, and was at the fatality site the morning that we recovered his body. His Captain remained at the pump as the IC, as Sam and two coworkers (all three were first year seasonal Firefighter I’s) were sent to combat the fire started by juveniles playing with fire on an end of the school year field trip.
    Sam was a good and humble young man. I think of him often and am grateful to have known him and worked with him.
    His Captain at this incident, Franklyn Chester Knapp-Smith, was killed (LODD) the next summer on another juvenile firesetter caused fire in San Jose, CA on August 11, 1980.

  • Kevin Conant says:


  • WLF Staff says:

    Thanks, I added the location in the box!


  • Robert Morrison says:

    For other pictures, a short Biography, and newspaper articles, about [b]Sam Morrison[/b] go to the webpage:


  • Kevin Conant says:

    Do you think you can add the link to Sam that his brother (bobbymo) included this AM?

    Warm Regards,

    Kevin Conant

  • WLF Staff says:

    Wonderful obituary and photo of your brother, Bob. Thanks for sharing.

  • Robert Morrison says:

    (Part 1 – The Burn Site)

    This month marks the 35th Anniversary of Sam’s passing from this life.

    Sam was employed by Stevens Creek Forest Fire Station, under Captains: Doeltz and Chester Knapp-Smith. He reported to his first fire on June 5th, at Saratoga Springs (Sanborn Fire No. 104). The Sanborn Fire fire was caused by a couple of ‘graduates’ juveniles playing in the woods with illegal ‘M80’ fireworks, also called ‘Cherry Bombs’.

    Sam was very enthusiastic to be working in his chosen profession, and was said to have worked very hard to combat the fire, while carrying a back pump. At one point, a fellow Fire Fighter Valle noticed him lying down under some trees breathing very hard and holding a handkerchief over his mouth. Not long after this, “Engineer Pennel asked Fire Fighter (Sam) Morrison to help them. He recalls Fire Fighter Morrison looking directly at him but not responding to his direction.”(b) Sam was apparently becoming fatigued and disoriented. He was last seen replacing a broken hose, by his Fire Captain Knapp-Smith, at approx. 5:45pm (b). It wasn’t until 9:30pm “that Captain Knapp-Smith noticed that Fire Fighter Morrison was missing.” Sam had been missing for 4 hours, before anyone noticed it! “The sheriff’s office (Search & Rescue) was notified and Deputy Stadlbauer arrived at 11:00pm.”(b)

    The Captain called Sam’s family’s house to see if he had gone home. I (Robert Morrison) decided to come to search for him. A friend & I arrived at 11 pm, but we were told we could not go into the burn site, because we would hamper the rescue efforts. The Fire Captain assured me that a helicopter would shortly be overhead looking for my brother. Discouraged, I returned home, and dropped off my friend off at his house. There seemed to be nothing fire personnel would let my family do. I returned at approx. 12:00 midnight, and found that all fire personnel, trucks, and the ‘rescue’ Deputy had left the area. Against orders, I decided to walk into the fire burn site to look for Sam.

    I looked for him on the burn site, by flashlight all night, calling his name repeatively. Contrary to the Official Investigation Report, no helicopter was ever within earshot of the burn site that night. It was deadly silent all night. [Perhaps the helicopter had contractual problems similar to the air-tanker bombers fire retardant drop problems that was quoted in the newspaper, “we aren’t under contract yet to Hollister, “said Mannhalter.” That’s still a few days away.”(d)] The only person moving around on that hill that night was me. All his brother fire fighters “went to Sambos in Los Gatos for grub”(c) and then home to sleep. A later report statement by Lloyd Keeper stated, “Everybody felt he had left.”

    Early in the morning I called home, and told my parents that the fire personnel had not searched at all that night (as the Fire Captain had promised me), and I asked them to send more family. My father and brothers arrived with a friend Jeff Kitts. A few Search and Rescue people arrived with a dog in the morning, about 8am. The dog was ‘working’ the burn site, but was not able to pick up Sam’s scent. A few other fire personnel arrived, but seemed more concerned with smoldering ‘hot spots’.

    Jeff Kitts & I decided to work together to find him. I knew the site well, and he had fresh energy. We thought if he was sick, he might have headed to the creek, so we combed the area between the burn site and the creek. At about 9:00 am, Jeff found him and called out to me, I was there in a minute. He was dead! I called out to my family, and they arrived shortly. After a few minutes, I went to get the fire personnel. They carried him out. We were devastated. The date was 6-6 (1979).

    Someone alerted the Media, for my mother heard the news that her son had died, via the radio, before the family was able to drive home.

  • Robert Morrison says:

    (Part 2 – The Report)

    The autopsy report said the cause of death was “Heat Stroke”, contributory: “Acute Pneunonitis, probably viral”. Sam was in very good shape; he played 4 years of high school football (a), he was well prepared physically for the task. He was not known to be sick the week prior, but may have been, and not shown it. (My mother & I, theorize that he got sick that day on the hill due to allergies of the burning grass and brush, which mimicked ‘pneumonia’.) [Both Sam and myself had allergies. Many years later, I inhaled greatly dispersed smoke particles from the Orange County, Laguna Hills (grass & brush) Fire, from about 10 miles down wind. I became sick with asthma for 3 months. Perhaps Sam had a more severe allergic reaction to the heavy smoke on his day.]

    The Conclusion of the Fatality Investigation ‘Cause of death’ (b) was that Sam had died from being overeager to fight the fire, being predisposed ill, and having an elevated temperature. I believe some responsibility resides with his Fire Captain who was in charge of the novice fire fighter’s welfare on his first fire. . . No mention in the report summary was given to the Fire Captain’s responsibility “to keep the crew together and calm” during the fire (e). I believe an organization that refuses to look honestly at its past mistakes is likely to repeat its errors. Truth is important to correct future tragedies.

    [Interestingly, Sam’s Fire Captain at this incident, “Franklin Chester Knapp-Smith, was killed the next summer . . . in San Jose (Santa Teresa Hills) CA, on August 11, 1980.”(f)]

    His brother Fire Fighters left Sam on the hill that night, but they all came to his funeral.
    One after another, the beautiful Fire Trucks rolled in. The Funeral Mass was beautiful. All seemed to have been thankful to have known Sam, even if it was for a short time. Sam’s fire burned brightly, and then was gone. The funeral Eulogy emphasized “there is no greater love, than to give your life for others”(g)

    His family believes that the Lord had prepared him to leave this life early. The last couple years of his life he had become a very enthusiastic Christian man. Shortly before he died, he recorded in his personal journal that he had “dreams of leaving”, but he left his future up to God.

    We miss Sam, but believe he is in better place, near the burning bosom of God.

    (a) These excerpts come from his Fire Science Resume: Life History.
    (b) From Fatality Investigation, Sanborn Fire No. 104, June 5th 1979.
    (c) Fire Caption Franklin Chester Knapp-Smith Sequence of Events deposition.
    (d) Newspaper article: Fireman Missing in Canyon Blaze (San Jose News? 6-6-79?)
    (e) Newspaper article: Body of Fighterfighter Found in Saratoga Wildland, with an interview by Fire Captain Ken Gilbert (San Jose News, June 7, 1979.)
    (f) See: Franklin Chester Knapp Smith Fire incident, on Aug. 11th, 1980.
    (g) From funeral Mass Eulogy, by Ascension Parish Priest, (Rev. John Koohan, OSJ).

    Written by Sam’s brother: Robert Samuel Morrison (BobbyMo)

    On the Feast of ‘Corpus Christi’, June 22, 2014.

  • Kevin Conant says:

    Today, June 5, 2016 is the 37th Memorial Anniversary of Samuel Paul Morrison, Firefighter 1, CA-SCU, E-5466, Station 23, Stevens Creek FFS, Santa Clara Unit, CAL FIRE, Sanborn Fire, Saratoga, CA (Saratoga Springs Picnic & Campgrounds, 22801 Big Basin Way, Saratoga, CA 95070)

    Growing up in Cupertino, Sam and I were only a year apart at Kennedy Jr. High School and Monta Vista High School, and we were assigned the same crew at Stevens Creek Station that summer. On June 4-5, 1979, I was up at Columbia College in Sonora, CA, finishing up my final exams, when Sam died on a small grass fire, started by juveniles playing with fire and fireworks. I was there on June 6, 1979, when his brother Robert, the Sheriff’s office and CAL FIRE firefighters recovered his body.

    We shall never forget the sacrifice of Sam paying the ultimate price with his life on this senseless and tragic day. I grieve his death, and mourn his loss, especially for his family. This incident, the Spanish Ranch Fire in CA-SLU, and Captain Chester Knapp-Smith’s LODD formed my professional life more than I could have ever imagined. I have been blessed enough to enjoy a long and prosperous career, focusing on more meaningful leadership and safety training.

    Thank you Sam for the gift that you are in my life, for your courageous faith, your incredible work ethic, and enduring spirit. You have not been forgotten, nor did you die in vain!

    Kevin Conant, Battalion Chief (ret.)

  • Kevin Conant says:

    Thinking about Sam P. Morrison today, remembering his incredible sacrifice and the ultimate changes his death made in the fire service. His life formed my career in so many ways that still affect me today. My heart goes out to the Morrison family, as this sad day is a painful reminder of our fragile life truly is on earth. Kevin Conant, former classmate and work colleague.

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