by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Last summer, a staggering series of hundreds of lightning fires hit northern California torching over 2.5 million acres, destroying more than 3,700 structures and causing almost two dozen deaths. Such natural disasters have taken place throughout history, but the freak occurrence of so many at a time when conditions were ripe for a catastrophe definitely set this “siege” apart.
Tonight’s highlighted object from the museum’s collection is the May 1926 issue of the Union Oil Bulletin, a monthly magazine for employees of the company, which was established some four decades before in Santa Paula in Ventura County and which became a very powerful firm in ensuing decades.
The feature article in the publication is simply titled “Oil Fires” and refers to a pair of massive blazes set by lightning strikes on 7-8 April in tank farms maintained by the company near San Luis Obispo (oil was mainly being extracted from the east in the San Joaquin Valley) and just outside of Brea in northern Orange County (with most crude coming in from the Brea-Olinda field and other fields to the east). The destruction was enormous, though injury and loss of life, thankfully, was minimal, but the dual disasters were covered in newspapers around the country.
The Bulletin article noted that there was a loss of nearly 8 million barrels in the conflagrations. The first took place just south of San Luis Obispo on what is still called Tank Farm Road near the county airport and that farm was, at the time, the largest in the world. It was just after 7:30 a.m. on the 7th when the strike took place, setting three reservoirs aflame all at once, and then was followed by another burst that hit a fourth reservoir. Within seventeen hours, there was so much “boilover” from the four, that a fifth was signited and all but one row of adjacent tanks.
Strong winds whipped up because of the intense heat generated by the fire “and aggravated by the forty mile gale which was blowing at the time from the southwest.” Embers from the roof of the fifth reservoir then drifted on the roof of the sixth and that, too, went up, while “other steel tanks were set on fire by boilovers from the last two reservoirs (numbers five and six) and only five were saved out of the original nineteen.”
Though they were warned by Union employees of the growing disaster, two nearby ranch owners resisted leaving the area and led to “the loss of their lives when their home was wrecked by one of the tornadoes and a young woman was slightly injured.” The piece added that no one else was hurt, “although hundreds of men were engaged in protective work throughout the burning area.”
The next morning at 9 a.m., “a sharp stroke of lightning ignited two reservoirs simultaneously” at the 55-acre farm at Stewart, named for Union’s founder Lyman Stewart, and an area now an industrial section of Brea, just west of its downtown and bounded by Central Avenue on the north, Lambert Road on the south, Berry Street on the east and Puente Street on the west.
As the boilover ensued from the pair being set alight, another reservoir caught fire, along with a small refinery, though the pumping plant, the fifteen steel storage tanks (each with a 55,000-barrel capacity), and three other reservoirs were saved and there was no report of injury. The article ended with the statement that the loss would mostly be covered by insurance taken out with several firms, though adjusting was still underway, and that “there has been no interruption to normal operations.”
The centerfold contains nine images from both sites, with two-thirds showing thick, massive plumes of dark smoke rising from the San Luis Obispo fire and damage caused by the flames, while a trio of the Brea disaster include one of wind-driven flames and smoke, a simple fire break, and a panoramic view of the refinery.
In its extensive coverage on the 8th, the Santa Ana Register had a less sanguine approach to the incident, with the main headline blaring, “Millions Lost As Lightning Ignites 2 Oil Tanks At Brea” and the subhead reads “Spreading Flames [Im]Peril Lives Of Many In Orange County Petroleum Area.” The drama increased with the next heading, which cried out, “Great Tongues of Fire and Clouds Of Smoke from Seething Cauldron of Destruction”.
The paper also discussed the San Luis Obispo blaze, noting that the two dead men were father and son W.F. and Fred Seeber, ages 50 and 25, whose house was just a quarter mile away and which was demolished, killing the elder Seeber instantly, while the son died shortly afterward. Daughter Dorris, who was 18, was critically injured and taken to Los Angeles for hospitalization and it was feared she would not survive. A half-dozen Union employees in a warehouse and others on site barely escaped injury or death. Residents within several miles were forced to evacuate as the 300-acre property was mostly consumed.
As for the Brea blaze, the Register accounted it as one “that will go down as one of the most disastrous in the history of Southern California, with damage running into the millions of dollars and [im]periling the lives of hundreds of residents of the northern Orange County town.” When lightning simultaneously hit two tanks, there was “a resultant blast [some locals said there were two, as if from each tank] that shook all northern Orange county” and “burning timbers from the wooden tops of the tanks were hurled hundreds of yards into the air” with some landing in Olinda, several miles to the northeast. It seems the sole injury was to a woman working in a Brea shop who was hit on the head by falling plaster, while plate glass windows shattered from the percussive effects of the explosion.
Because so many of the region’s firefighting personnel were at San Luis Obispo dealing with that conflagration, the response at Brea was at less than normal levels, though Union sent its own crew in by train from Los Angeles. Quickly, these crews built up fire breaks in the form of berms (a photo from the Bulletin shows this) Mass evacuations took place and the paper noted that “household furnishings were dumped into the streets,” apparently in the belief that houses might catch fire and the movable contents might be spared outdoors. There was, however, heavy rainfall from the late season storm, with Fullerton receiving three-quarters of an inch of precipitation the previous twenty-four hours.
Because of the intensity of the fire, the worry was the threat of further fires from boilovers and there was an urgency to pump out any oil in remaining tanks to lessen the potential loss, while a welding crew from a Brea tool works was sent out in readiness to dismantle tanks, if needed. There were twenty-five such storage facilities, each holding 55,000 barrels of oil, while three 1,000-gallon tanks stored distillate kerosene and gasoline.
The article ended with an interesting eyewitness statement by C.W. McKinley, a highway patrol service driver for the Automobile Club of Southern California, who was “on the La Habra-Brea Road,” likely what is now La Habra Boulevard, which becomes Central Avenue in Brea, to the north of the site,
when he was partially blinded by a streak of lightning which struck the ground about 600 feet to his right [meaning he was heading east]. As he looked up, two huge pillars of fire shot up, filling the air with a cloud of smoke, gas and debris. The report of the combined thunder and explosion of the oil tanks shook the ground and almost caused the automobile to leave the roadway.
On the 9th, the Los Angeles Record reported that the explosion and fire caused some $5 million in damage and 3,000 men were on hand to do what they could to limit the damage to three reservoirs with 750,000 barrels of oil in each, though it was said a fourth facility was in danger, and four 10,000-barrel tanks of kerosene and gasoline. Also damaged was the refinery (see that centerfold for an image of that) and site offices. It was believed that, if that reservoir could not be saved, then the entire farm would be destroyed.
There were eight firefighters who suffered burns and minor injuries and “a score of farmhouses were burned to a crisp by burning oil from overflowing tanks and miniature twisters created by the gas and flames.” Some one hundred acres of orange groves were also consumed, three-quarters belonging to J.D. Sievers, whose land was proclaimed “destroyed for all time” because “crude oil ruins the fertility of the soil” and Brea had no telephone service, while all roads were closed off.
A week after the dual disasters, the Times reported that, while the lost oil was probably no more than five percent of what was stored on the Pacific Coast, it was reported that the 5 million barrels of crude, three-quarters at San Luis Obispo, that was burned “were rated as refinable crude of the highest gravity.” This meant that the refinable crude percentage lost on the coast as a whole was in the neighborhood of eleven percent.
Because Union was generally acknowledged as having more high-gravity oil than other firms (at 28 rather than the low twenties), though, the actual percentage was probably closer to fifteen. Essentially, the disaster meant that “the elimination of this amount of refinable crude must exert a certain influence on the gasoline situation” and Union was going to have to purchase refined oil for the short term to meet the needs of its own stations.
There are some other items of interest in the May 1926 edition of the Union Oil Bulletin. One piece, “Our Neighbor to the South,” discussed conditions in Mexico. Interestingly, author F.E. Albright opened with the observation that “it seems a popular conception that Mexico is a land of san wastes, intolerable heat, creeping things, and bandits lying in wait to pump you full of lead whenever the opportunity presents itself.”
Allowing that this might be true to a point, he added, “disagreeable things are to be found in other places.” Moreover, while “the bandidos, as they are called, are still at large” Albright did not think they were “in numbers that beset some of our American cities.” The larger ppoint was that “a fictionalized Mexico has been constructed in the minds of many outsiders, which is a hindrance to the development of that country.”
Whatever troubles came in previous years with revolutions and the discord associated with then, Albright felt that “due to the courage and perseverance of a few strong men of that coiuntry” such instability had “practically subsided and today once can travel through the country with a feeling of security.” He talked of water distribution, agriculture, and other aspects of the nation’s resources and economy as he traveled along the Pacific coast of the country as far south as Mazatlán.
The author concluded his survey by stating, “Mexico need have no anxiety as to its commercial future. Its vast area, great range of coimate and soil and mineral wealth [nothing was actually said about oil, of which the nation had enormous untapped reserves at the time] constitute one of the most tempting regions for the man of aggressiveness and enterprise.” The controversy over foreign expropriation of Mexico’s petroleum resources, however, was such that the industry was nationalized by President Lázaro Cárdenas in spring 1938, though internal corruption with the immense wealth generated also roiled the politics of the country.
Another short article, “What Petroleum Gives Us Besides Gasoline” was the last in a twelve-part series under the heading of “The Romance of Gasoline.” The piece noted that there lighter oils that couod be distilled into such materials as paraffin, wax, lubricating oils, vaseline, forms of benzene, and much more. It was added that we would find such items used in anesthesia, refrigeration, explosives, paint, rubber, cleaners, hair tonic, paper processing, medicine, candles, soaps, dyes, cleaning products and much else. A photo of Union’s Wilmington refinery is also found in this piece.
In “News of the Month,” it was reported that crude production in California in March was near 19 million barrels, a decline of about 160,000 from February. All oil stocks on the ocast went up by about 70,000 barrels with the grand total standing at just south of 160 million. There were over a hundred new producing wells brought in during the month, producing almost 24,000 barrels per day, several more wells than in February, thought those produced more daily.
A quarterly report on Union’s finances observed that sales were up slightly over the same period in 1925 at over $17 million and profits were at about $5.5 million, also a tad bit higher per share for the comparable period. Union produced more than 3.5 million barrels for the first quarter, a drop of 350,000 from that of 1925, and the average yield per day was some 40,000. Expenditures for developing fields, making improvements, and for new processes of refining was $2,675,000 for the first three months of 1926.
The March oil statistics for the state showed that the biggest fields were Long Beach (nearly 3.5 million barrels each month) and Midway-Sunset in the San Joaquin Valley (almost 2.9 million). The third largest was Inglewood (1.65), followed by Santa Fe Springs (1.53), and Huntington Beach (1.42). Montebello, where Walter Temple had his lease operated by Standard Oil of California (now Chevron) was at almost 550,000 barrels per month, the twelfth highest of the twenty-five listd field. Total production for march was a little under 19 million barrels, an increase of not quite 10% from February—of course, there were also three more days, so the daily average for the latter was a bit higher than for the former, though March 1925 was about 6,500 barrels per day lower than for the comparable month.
Stocks of heavy crude were up over 40% from the previous year, from just north of 60 million barrels to over 88. Refinable crude of a lighter gravity was only very slightly up, while gasoline production dipped a little, distillates dropped some, and all other stocks were up more than 15%.
As for development, Midway-Sunset had two dozen new rigs, while Long Beach had 18, far more than other fields, though the latter had 126 active drilling wells with 55 finished, compared to 41 and 19 for the former and its initial daily output was 11,742 barrels per day, with no other field over 3,100, that being Ventura-Newhall. Because, however, Midway-Sunset had much fewer wells, its daily production averages were far in advance that of others.
Found “tipped” or loose in the magazine is the May edition of “Safety in the Union” which included short summaries of fatal incidents, with one involving a driller who tried to work on a new well’s machinery without having it properly blocked and he was pulled into an engine sprocket and a horrible death. A “Dollars or Sense” piece reminded employees that “more than half the accidents in the field,” and oil field work was often a very dangerous propositon, “are due to thoughtlessness and may be prevented.” Also mentioned was the fact that, in the “spectacular fires” covered above, “there were . . . no casulaties among the hundreds of men engaged in buildng firewalls at both tank farms.”
Disasters involving the oil industry, whether well fires, blazes at tank farms or refineries, spills and leaks, and others are always of great concern now for effects on people and for environmental reasons, while, nearly a century ago, more was often made about the loss of product and money, as well as concerns for injury or death of workers and the public. The April 1926 lightning strikes were, of course, what is generally denoted as “acts of God,” though insurance companies did make the biggest payout to date in California history totaling some $9 million.