Life would never be the same for Chet Gilliatt, Sr., after the great fire of 1979 swept unmerciliously through east Hesperia.


Gilliatt owned two homes near the corner of Olive Street and E Avenue: One was where the family lived, the other was to be the future home of his about-to-be-married son.


"Both of our homes burned completely," said Gilliatt, who lives with his wife Donna in Hesperia three decades later. "The fire took everything but the clothes on our backs."


It was the worst fire in the Victor Valley's history scorching more than 1,600 acres and destroying 17 homes in Hesperia. The fire cost nearly $2 million in damages, recalled Mike Weis, now Battalion Chief with San Bernardino County Fire Department. He was captain of the Hesperia Fire Department when the two fires broke out then merged on Thursday, June 14, 1979.


"It was quite a fire," said Doug Blunt, who lived near one of the fire's two origin points at Santa Fe Avenue and Ranchero Road. "It moved so fast through the junipers."


With the help of his sons, Blunt prevented the fire from destroying nearby neighbors' homes.


"We were able to keep the fire away from my house," he said. "We stopped the fire from jumping."


Meanwhile, teenager Carol Alves Hearn and her mother Aileen Alves were coming home from a grocery shopping outing at Hesperia Village Market. But when they were driving home on I Avenue, firefighters stopped them.


"My mother started screaming, 'My house is up there! My house is up there!'" Hearn recalled.


But the firefighter wouldn't let her by, so her mother quickly turned the car around and drove a secret, back way home.


Lucky to be alive


Gilliatt's oldest son, Chet Jr., who had just graduated from Apple Valley High School, had gone to Disneyland for Grad Night. Tired from the late night at the Magic Kingdom, he was still asleep that afternoon.


The younger son also was at home, getting ready to attend a friend's high school school graduation at Victor Valley High School. The boy put his suit in the washing machine and called his mother.


"How long do I wash this suit?" he asked his mother. "What!" she replied, and got into her car at the family's nearby business and rushed home. Not only did she find her son attempting to wash his suit, but she also discovered her eldest was sleeping soundly.


"She was there with the two boys when the fire hit," Gilliatt said. "If the younger boy hadn't been there we might have lost our other son because he was asleep."


250 fire personnel


It took 250 fire personnel from 19 different fire agencies all day and most of the night to contain the raging inferno.


One of the fires, which investigators learned had been set by a 14-year-old boy, began around 2:45 p.m. at the corner of E and Chase avenues. Only a short time later, another fire was reported in the area of Ranchero Road and Santa Fe Avenue. Eventually the two fires combined at Mesquite between C and E avenues.


"At that time period we were doing our own dispatching from H Avenue and Olive Street," Weis said. "They had to vacate the dispatch center then they had to transfer the dispatching to a neighboring city."


Most of the fire was contained at Main Street, Weis said. Although there was a small patch north of Main Street that did burn, firefighters were able to quickly put it out.


There was one fatality during the fire. Walter Hughes, 67, suffered a heart attack while trying to save the Desert Manor Apartments on Olive Street and G Avenue. A Southern California Edison worker, trying to cut to power to a burning home, Weis said, fell from a power pole when he was overcome be smoke from a nearby burning building.


The Gilliatts, who owned Hesperia Towing and Storage, lost 16 vehicles in the fire, nine of them classic cars. Their business office and all its records also went up in smoke. Donna Gilliatt grabbed a box of pictures. A son took a sound system.


"That's the only thing they got out of the house."


Because their business records -- and bank savings account pass books -- were destroyed, the Gilliatts' livelihood would suffer for years to come.


"I could write a book on what happened - and the devastation that happened - after the fire," Gilliatt said. "It still hasn't gone away."