Three years ago, I wrote one of those anniversary pieces that columnists love so dearly. It marked 50 years since two devastating wildfires raged through Sonoma County at the same time, threatening both Santa Rosa and the Sonoma Valley.
The Hanly fire and the Nunn’s Canyon fire of late September 1964 were tagged in our files as the most devastating in the county’s history. The column revisited the Hanly fire and was a bit preachy in places, suggesting (as columnists do — relentlessly) that there were lessons that week might have taught us. But didn’t.
It all began early on Sept. 19, a Saturday morning, when a deer hunter dropped a cigarette on a wooded slope below Highway 29 as it winds up Mt. St. Helena from the upper Napa Valley. By 10:15 a.m., flames were seen behind Hanly’s tavern, an old, familiar stopping place on the right side of the narrow road.
The new fire was moving fast down the hill toward Calistoga, growing as it traveled.
Through the weekend into the Monday that followed, firefighters and volunteers armed with garden hoses and wet gunnysacks battled to save the up-valley town, holding the damage to about 40 homes on the northeastern edge. When the winds died down on Monday morning, Calistoga gave a collective sigh of relief that echoed over the surrounding hills and valleys.
All too soon.
On Monday night, the winds returned and the fire moved west with breathtaking speed. It created its own wind as it moved at 40 mph along Porter Creek and Mark West Springs roads into Sonoma County, burning homes along Mark West Springs and Riebli roads. It roared across Wikiup and Parker Hill Road, and — within what seemed like minutes — appeared along the ridge of Montecito Heights. Startled Santa Rosans watched from the streets below.
It moved down into Rincon Valley, advanced to Parker Hill and the old Fountaingrove Ranch and headed straight for the County Hospital on Chanate. That’s where a quick-thinking fire marshal from the Santa Rosa department, who was in charge because the chief was out of town, decided he would stop it. Giving the surprising order to delay loading the very sick and very old occupants of the hospital into waiting buses, Mike Turnick commandeered a bulldozer from its operator and, using skills he had learned years before with a lumber company, cut a fire break north of the hospital, stationed fire engines along the length of it and then turned his dozer up Parker Hill and cut another break.
Whether it was a combination of great risk, foolhardiness, derring-do, divine providence or pure dumb luck, just as he finished — as trees exploded and deer ran down the road, some of them on fire — the winds shifted and began to die down.
The flames were just 100 yards short of the hospital buildings.
Turnick was, of course, hailed as a hero. Doctors stepped up to praise him, saying that many of the patients would not have survived the move.
The Hanly fire, or what was left of it, turned west, burning down the grassy slope to Mendocino Avenue, where it stopped, across the street from Journey’s End Trailer Park.