Redwood Empire fire history remains visible in wild spots

  • In the fall of 1964, the Hanley Fire roared up the slopes of what is now the Pepperwood Preserve, scarring redwood trees as the fir blew through and marched toward Santa Rosa. Preserve manger Michael Gillogly gives scale to the trees, Thursday Sept. 12, 2013. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2013

Black streaks run 40 feet up the trunks of a ring of redwoods in the Pepperwood Preserve off Porter Creek Road in the Mayacmas Mountains northeast of Santa Rosa.

The trees are healthy, silently bearing the scars of the epic wildfire of September 1964 that rattled Santa Rosa's nerves before it was stopped about 100 feet from the door of the old Community Hospital on Chanate Road.

Nearly all of the 3,200-acre preserve was scorched as 70 mph winds, close to hurricane strength, blasted the Hanly fire from Calistoga through Knights Valley, Franz Valley and down the Mark West Canyon to what was then the northeast outskirts of Santa Rosa.

At 52,700 acres, the Hanly fire is the largest in Sonoma County — and fourth-largest in the Redwood Empire — in the last half-century.

It pales in comparison to California's mega-fires, including the 255,560-acre Rim Fire still burning in and around Yosemite National Park, now the state's third-largest wildfire since the 1930s.

Firefighters and forest ecologists say it's unlikely the Redwood Empire will ever see such massive blazes, but destructive wildfires regularly erupt in the region, as they do all over the state.

The Hanly fire, ignited when a deer hunter tossed a cigarette into dry grass on the slope of Mount St. Helena in Napa County, remains as testimony to what happens when California's recreation-friendly Mediterranean climate bakes grass, brush and trees dry every summer.

"All it needs is an ignition source," said Michael Gillogly, the Pepperwood Preserve manager, standing on an east-facing slope that the Hanly fire's flames raced up 49 years ago. "It could burn any time."

Firefighters and forest ecologists agree: About 4,400 wildfires a year, covering nearly 220,000 acres, according to a recent five-year average reported by Cal Fire, are part of the circle of life and death in California.

"Fire is another of those processes built into the landscape," said Rick Mowery, a Mendocino National Forest fire ecologist. "A lot of California relies on fire to function in a healthy way."

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