Gaye LeBaron: Tubbs fire revives memory of a blaze that now haunts Santa Rosa

Gaye LeBaron remembers the city that suffered through Sonoma County’s last mega fire and wonders if we overlooked peril.|

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, 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.

Map showing the footprint of the Hanly Fire (1964) compared to the Tubbs Fire (2017) Dennis Bolt for the Press Democrat/Sonoma County Parks Map
Map showing the footprint of the Hanly Fire (1964) compared to the Tubbs Fire (2017) Dennis Bolt for the Press Democrat/Sonoma County Parks Map

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.


THIS IS AN OLD familiar story, which many of you have not only heard before but told often, particularly as we watched the changes to the burned-over acreage that was once among the more successful 19th century American Utopian communities, the domain of an enigmatic leader named Thomas Lake Harris, who had a thousand followers on two continents.

Long after Harris left and took the “Home Centre” of his Brotherhood of the New Life with him, Fountaingrove remained important as a destination for famous visitors and a gathering place for Santa Rosa’s elite, including politicians and townspeople, such as Luther Burbank.

Into the first third of the 20th century, Asian diplomats came to call, visiting Kanaye Nagasawa, an early Harris follower who became proprietor of Fountaingrove winery and vineyard. Nagasawa made his own history, both here and in his native Kagoshima as the first Japanese winemaker.


A SUBSEQUENT OWNER replaced the prize vineyards with beef cattle. The last owner, polo player and horse breeder Robert Walter, began a development process.

Over prolonged protests from early environmentalists who saw great potential as public land with grassy hills, and exotic trees, ponds and lakes left from “Father” Harris’ elaborate estate, Fountaingrove Ranch was developed.

The first sale was to computer pioneer Hewlett-Packard for a state-of-the-art campus, a decision that most found acceptable - if the rest was considered for parkland.

It never was.

Through a series of owners, each with their own plans - some more grandiose than others - Fountaingrove emerged in the new century, a high-end golf course around the lake, two hotels and high-end homes, dubbed McMansions by the flatlanders, growing more expansive and expensive as they moved upward and north and east into open land beyond the ranch boundaries, ultimately going all the way to Mark West Springs Road.

The parkway, also protested, connected the newly important north end of town - once best-known simply for the Round Barn and the hardtop track - with Rincon Valley. It was, planners explained, the first leg of a proposed ”beltway” circling the town.


FIFTY YEARS LATER, I asked the readers to pause and consider that it was almost all-open land that the fire burned through on its way to the bulldozered breaks and wind change on the Chanate hill.

Not only the big, expensive homes but a golf course and clubhouse restaurant, office and medical buildings, light industry, lakeside retirement homes, a long row of nursing facilities and two hotels were added. And in the midst of it all, stood what remained of Fountaingrove of old, the Round Barn, one of three in the county that survived a barn design architectural phase popular from the 1890s to 1920s.

Now there are two.


SO WHAT AM I SAYING? That I am anti-development? That the environment gods sent fire along the same path to punish us for committing the sin of growth? Not at all.

I just suggest that we should, perhaps, pay closer attention. We could have benefited from this history lesson. Those who ignore it, we are told, are doomed to repeat it.

But, even as the flames were threatening still and again on Wednesday night, I was thinking about the Santa Rosa I first knew - which pretty much ended at the junior college campus. This killer fire lopped some 60 years of growth off our northern end.

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