Johnny Cash in 1969. (Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

The Man in Black vs. the “yellow buzzards”: the day Johnny Cash set a forest on fire

In June 1965, Johnny Cash ignited a wildfire in the Los Padres National Forest that drove off 49 of the area’s 53 endangered California condors.

In those days, the gravelly-voiced singer had fallen so deep into amphetamine use that the people around him feared for his life. Cash had driven his camper along with his nephew into the Sespe Creek wilderness to get some fresh air. According to a biography, the fire began after the two men pulled to the side of the road. The nephew believed Cash, who had been popping pills and swigging whiskey, lit a fire to keep warm and let it get away from him. Cash claimed it started from the sparks of a defective exhaust system on the camper.

Either way, the blaze grew rapidly, tearing through 500 acres and taking firefighters a week to put out.

It was surely the drugs talking when Cash derided the majestic California condor.
Trent Townsend

Cash didn’t help his case when questioned by investigators. Here’s one back-and-forth during a deposition, according to Cash’s retelling in his 1997 autobiography:

“Did you start this fire?”

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

“Do you feel bad about what you did?”

“Well, I feel pretty good right now.”

“But how about driving all those condors out of the refuge?”

“You mean those big yellow buzzards?”

“Yes, Mr. Cash, those yellow buzzards.”

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

In the end, Cash was fined $125,000, equivalent to about $1 million in today’s dollars.

A few years later, Cash turned his life around thanks in part to a sensational performance at Folsom Prison that revived his career and thrust him into a new role as a voice for the downtrodden. The condors also recovered. From just 22 remaining in the early 1980s, conservationists have since helped hatch more than 1,000 chicks. Despite Cash’s slur, it’s impossible not to be awed as they soar overhead with flaming orange heads and wings that spread 10 feet tip to tip.

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