Bill Clayton, a wildland firefighting expert who saved countless lives and entire towns during a career that spanned 50 years, died Sunday at the age of 77 of natural causes at his home in Carlsbad.
“He was a legend in the fire service,” said lifelong friend and recently retired Cal Fire Battalion Chief Ray Chaney.
“You’d be driving up to this giant atomic bomb-looking column of smoke, be a little nervous or have that sense of apprehension, and then you’d hear Bill’s voice on the radio: ‘Monte Vista division thirty-three zero seven responding’ in his gruff, low-tone voice,” Chaney said.
“And you got this sense of calm because you knew you had a man of his caliber that was going to be there to support you no matter what circumstance you were going to be involved with.”
Clayton was the most decorated firefighter in the history of what is now known as Cal Fire. He fought the 1970 Laguna fire and the 2003 Cedar fire during his time with both the U.S Forest Service and then the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, as well as thousands of others in between. He was a multiple winner of the Medal of Valor, the highest award given to firefighters in the state.
City of San Diego Fire Chief Brian Fennessy remembered Clayton’s sense of humor and talent for telling stories and sharing lessons learned. He said Clayton was “a true icon” whose historical knowledge of wildland fire in San Diego County was unprecedented.
A friend since 1978, Fennessy said his friend was a “great teacher and a great leader and mentor.”
He remembered when President George W. Bush came to San Diego following the 2003 firestorms to inspect the devastation by helicopter with Clayton by his side. Later that day, Bush invited Clayton to tour Air Force One.
“He and George really hit it off,” Fennessy said. “And you can see that. That’s the way Bill was with everybody.”
Clayton originally retired after 40 years of service in 1998, but found the quiet life unacceptable.
“I think he missed it,” said Chaney, who was Clayton’s godson. “I think he missed the family. I think he missed the camaraderie. I think he missed the action. I think he missed that sense of purpose.”
He soon returned to active duty as a division chief and in 2003 was one of the incident commanders for both the Paradise fire in Valley Center and then the Cedar fire a couple days later.
On the morning of Oct. 26, 2003, Clayton had already forced his way through the Paradise fire to find one woman burned to death near her car and a 16-year-old girl severely injured by flames that trapped her in her automobile.
Then Clayton received an urgent call from the dispatch center that 50 to 60 people — later determined to be closer to 200 — were trapped in the Valley View Casino in Valley Center and that flames were reaching the building. Clayton drove to the casino, speeding through several firefronts and dodging arcing power lines whipping in the wind. On the way, he and another firefighter rescued a man about to be overtaken by the blaze.
When Clayton got to the casino, flames were lapping at the building’s rear and a 10,000-gallon propane tank was about to explode. In acrid, blinding smoke, Clayton ran to several fire engines he had ordered to the casino and gave instructions for the fire attack.
When he went inside the casino, “he found an almost surreal scene,” according to Medal of Valor nomination papers.
About 200 elderly patrons were panicking. An injured horse running wild inside had kicked a badly burned patron to the ground. Clayton managed to scare away the horse and then turned to the frightened crowd, assuring them they would live if they followed his instructions. All survived.
Two days later, he was one of two incident commanders of the Cedar fire, the worst wildland blaze the county had ever experienced. Many homes were lost but he was able to lead a firefight that saved downtown Julian. He was also there when a Northern California firefighter, Steven Rucker, was killed while protecting a home in Wynola, just west of Julian.
He recalled during a 2006 interview finding Rucker, slamming his helmet on the ground and pouring water from his canteen on him.
“Even though he was dead, I didn’t want his body to desecrate anymore,” he said.
He suffered heavy smoke inhalation during the casino ordeal and contracted pneumonia while working the Cedar fire.
Clayton retired again from Cal Fire in 2006. He then became the Sycuan Fire Department’s chief for several years and then, almost right up to his death, has kept busy doing consultation work.
“He’s taught fire instruction all over the globe from Portugal to South America to Australia to all over the United States,” Chaney said. “He was a subject matter expert as a wildland firefighter.”
One of Clayton’s proudest moments came in 1997 when he and others drove through a wall of 50-foot flames and saved a teen-age boy, his mother and grandfather, just before fire overtook their Lake Wohlford area home. He won his first Medal of Valor for the rescue.
“I wish my father had been able to see me get the governor’s Medal of Valor,” he said during a 1998 interview. His dad, a former chief of Camp Pendleton’s fire department, had died the year before.
“He was one of the few gentlemen and he really believed in honor and chivalry and being a man’s man,” Chaney said. “He lived life to the fullest. Anybody in his shoes would feel great satisfaction in a life well lived.”
Clayton is survived by his wife, children and grandchildren.
Services are scheduled for 1 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 10, at the Rock Church in Point Loma, 2277 Rosecrans St.