In the summer of 1965, Johnny Cash was living in the wilderness of Southern California when — possibly high on drugs — what is known as the Johnny Cash wildfire was started by sparks from his overheated truck that blazed through more than 500 acres and threatened the lives of endangered condors.
For a brief time, he shared an apartment in Nashville with Waylon Jennings, who was heavily addicted to amphetamines. Cash used the uppers to stay awake during tours.
Friends joked about his “nervousness” and erratic behavior, many ignoring the warning signs of his worsening drug addiction.
Although he was in many ways spiraling out of control, Johnny Cash’s frenetic creativity was still delivering hits. His rendition of “Ring of Fire” was a crossover hit, reaching No. 1 on the country charts and entering the Top 20 on the pop charts.
In June 1965, his camper caught fire during a fishing trip with his nephew Damon Fielder in Los Padres National Forest in California, triggering a forest fire that burnt several hundred acres and nearly killed Cash. Cash claimed that the fire was caused by sparks from a defective exhaust system on his camper, but Fielder thinks that Cash started a fire to stay warm and in his drugged condition failed to notice the fire getting out of control.
When the judge asked Cash why he did it, Cash said, “I didn’t do it, my truck did, and it’s dead, so you can’t question it.” The fire destroyed 508 acres, burning the foliage off three mountains and driving off forty-nine of the refuge’s 53 endangered condors.
Cash was unrepentant and claimed, “I don’t care about your damn yellow buzzards.” The federal government sued him and was awarded $125,172 ($939,914 in 2016 dollars). Cash eventually settled the case and paid $82,001.He said he was the only person ever sued by the government for starting a forest fire.