LeBaron: Historic wildfires' catastrophic lessons

  • 1964 Nuns canyon fire_Hanly fire volumteers on fire line near calistoga.
    Joe Price Jr. photo

We coastal Californians tend to disrespect our disasters, probably because — unlike hurricanes and tornadoes — they don’t have a “season” when we can reasonably expect them. We can’t predict earthquakes, only remind ourselves that there will be another one “someday.” Floods take more than one storm to form. We can watch the river rise, inch by inch.

But in between wildfires — with no evacuation orders, no TV reporters standing in front of the flames, no front page headlines counting the thousands of acres burned — we might be tempted to forget just how quickly fires move and how much damage they can do before we get our wits about us.

We thought about this last week, with proud Mt. St. Helena shrouded in smoke from the two fires east of the Napa Valley.

Those of us who have lived here for half a century will never ever in the rest of our days pay no attention to a fire that is anywhere within three counties of our homes. It is a lesson we learned in 1964.

THAT WAS some kind of September 50 years ago, when two separate fires started on the same morning and burned out of control for six days, creating what we took to calling “Hell Week” in Sonoma County.

The first began before dawn on Saturday, Sept. 19, when a PG&E transformer blew on Al Torrieri’s ranch in Nunn’s Canyon in the mountains east of Glen Ellen. The sparks ignited brush that had not seen rain in many months, in the midst of a week of 100-degree temperatures. Instant flames, fanned by strong down-slope winds, sent the fire two ways — toward Sugar Loaf and Adobe Canyon and south to the springs area and Sonoma, burning uncontrolled through a grim weekend.

Meanwhile, in Napa County the same Saturday morning, at the southwest slope of Mount St. Helena, a deer hunter dropped a cigarette and by 10:15 a.m., there were flames behind a roadside tavern called Hanly’s, heading down the mountain to threaten the whole town of Calistoga. Forty homes northeast of town were lost and the entire town threatened with evacuation before the wind died down Monday morning. It seemed that what was now and forevermore known as the Hanly Fire could be stopped.

Meanwhile, the Nunn’s Canyon Fire had burned into Adobe Canyon, destroying permanent homes and vacation cabins as it traveled, before the drop in wind velocity early Monday.

Everybody breathed a sign of relief.

Too soon.

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