The man in black

In my search for information about the California condor, I never expected Johnny Cash’s name to appear. What is the connection between the country singer often called  “the man in black” and the endangered species?

According to an article in the 3 July 1969 edition of the Los Angeles Times, Johnny Cash and his nephew were on a camping/fishing trip in the Sespe Creek area of southern California – prime California condor habitat – when a fire began.

The 1969 article said the fire had happened 4 years earlier. So I went back to the Los Angeles Times for details. A pair of articles on 28-29 June 1965 described the fire and the efforts to extinguish it.

The first article reported that the fire had burned nearly a square mile and “has the potential of a giant fire”. Over 250 fire fighters were on the scene, along with 5 aircraft spraying fire retardant. The subheader for the article is:

Flames may endanger refuge for some 40 of nation’s nearly extinct condors

The article’s text elaborated:

Firefighters said the nests of the condors, a nearly extinct breed of birds that are among the world’s largest, were south of the fire and not immediately threatened. But a sudden shift of wind could imperil them, they said.

The subheader for the next day’s article is:

Nests of giant California condors periled; 400 continue fight on forest ‘hot spots’

This second article concluded:

The fire erupted … when a camper truck caught fire at the edge of the bird sanctuary.

The 1969 article that I started with was about a legal settlement. The federal government had sued Johnny Cash for over $125,000 for causing the fire. Four years after the fire, Carson settled for $82,000.

Searching further, I found Cash: The Autobiography (Harper Collins 1997). Here, the singer devotes 4 pages to the story of the fire and its aftermath. Here are excerpts:

Oil from a cracked bearing [on my camper truck] dripped onto the wheel … and it set fire to the grass. The fire spread quickly in the wind, and there was nothing I could do about it.

I grabbed my fishing pole from the back of the truck and walked down to a creek, figuring that even though there was only three inches of water in the creek, I’d act like I was so engrossed in my fishing that I just hadn’t noticed the fire eating up the scenery … behind me.

I was still sitting there when a man from the forestry service … asked me “Did you start this fire?” I couldn’t lie, but I tried. “My truck did”, I said.

As it turned out, … I had picked a bad spot to burn. The three mountains scorched by our fire were part of a wildlife refuge area for … endangered California condors.

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…. “I don’t give a damn about your yellow buzzards. Why should I care?”

Michael Streissguth’s biography of Johnny Cash (Da Capo 2006) notes that Cash’s finances were significantly strained by the government’s lawsuit.

According to another biography, this one by Antonino D’Ambrosio (Nation 2009):

The fire … killed forty-nine of the refuge’s fifty-three endangered condors.

Fortunately, that detail was wildly incorrect.

But the extreme condor death toll was repeated in an excerpt from Robert Hilburn’s biography of Johnny Cash (Little 2013) that was published in the Los Angeles Times (12 October 2013). According to Hilburn, Cash was under the influence of alcohol and amphetamines when the fire started. He had to be rescued from the fire by helicopter.

All in all, this is a sad tale. But things could have turned out much worse. And despite knowing this, I still enjoy Johnny Cash’s wonderful voice.

A different kind of near-catastrophe that threatened the Sespe refuge for California condors is described in the post 32 votes.