Johnny Cash Once Started A Wildfire & Almost Killed Off An Endangered Species Of Bird

Johnny Cash
Johnny Cash

Oh, and the fire went wild…

Johnny Cash may be remembered for his many hit songs including “Ring Of Fire.” But it turns out that a fire started by the Man In Black once burned up hundreds of acres of forest – and almost killed off an entire species of bird.

In the 1960s, Cash was deep into his drug addiction, finding himself in jail many times but always avoiding having to serve time in prison.

But it was during this time that the government came after him for a different reason.

Cash was living in California at the time, still married to his first wife Vivian Liberto, along with their three daughters. But in June of 1965, during a particularly turbulent time in his relationship, he came home one night after being gone for an extended period of time – something his wife resented – and during a heated argument, told Vivian that he wanted a divorce.

Wanting to escape, Cash loaded up his camper – which he called Jesse after the outlaw Jesse James – and went to pick up his nephew, Damon Fielder.

The pair set off for Los Padres National Forest, but apparently Fielder was none too pleased that Cash was driving them in his camper while throwing back whiskey and popping pills, and confronted him about his impaired state.

Eventually the two stopped to fish in the forest, and separated because they were so angry at each other. But it wasn’t long before Fielder began to smell smoke, and ran back to the camper to see Cash with a pack of matches beside him, fanning a flame that was quickly spreading out of control.

Fielder realized that they need to get out of there before the flames overtook them, but in his drunken state, Cash refused to leave. So in a desperate attempt to save both their lives, Fielder grabbed a tree branch and knocked his uncle over the head with it.

Unfortunately it didn’t knock Cash out as his nephew had planned, and the singer simply stumbled towards the water where he thought he would be safe.

At that point Fielder decided to try to find help, and eventually was able to flag down a fire helicopter. The chopper landed nearby, and Fielder ran back to Cash and was able to persuade him to get into the helicopter to get them out of there and to safety.

The blaze, meanwhile, burned down 508 acres of forest and took weeks to eventually put out. And it also either drove off or killed 49 of 53 endangered California condors that lived in the forest’s wildlife refuge.

Cash claimed that the fire was started by sparks from a defective exhaust system on his camper, but his nephew wasn’t convinced: Fielder thought that Cash had started the fire to keep warm and was unable to contain it in his drug-addled state. But either way, Cash didn’t really seem to care about the damage that he had caused.

He wrote about the incident in his 1997 autobiography, where he admitted going to a deposition with the government “full of amphetamines and arrogance” to discuss the matter. When asked whether he started the fire, Cash responded:

“No, my truck did, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it.”

I mean, fair point…

He was also asked whether he felt bad about causing the blaze:

“Well, I feel pretty good right now.”

And as for the birds that he nearly caused to go extinct? Well, Cash didn’t really care about those either:

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

Ultimately Cash would be sued by the federal government and ordered to pay $125,000 (which is nearly a million dollars in today’s money), though his fine was later reduced to $82,000 and was paid by his insurance companies. He also claimed that he was the first person ever successfully sued for starting a forest fire.

Oh, and those birds that Cash almost caused to go extinct? Well in the 1980s the government began a program to try to increase the population by breeding them in captivity, which turned out to be a success, and they now have an estimated population of around 550 as of 2023.

Of course Johnny Cash really could not have cared less about those yellow buzzards.

A beer bottle on a dock



A beer bottle on a dock