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Gaye LeBaron: Plenty of warnings in past wildfires

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Remembering past wildfires

“When we awoke this morning we looked out on a black world. The whole country is black and smoking.”

— Jim Modini’s diary, Sunday, Sept. 29, 1936

“The fire then whipped up again and came down the gap between the foothills and Woodleaf Park and Boyes Springs. The whole settlement was instantly ignited. … With cries of horror, people fled from their homes.”

— Sonoma Index-Tribune, September 1923

“It started below where the Fort Ross School is now and burned for three days straight, right across from where I am sitting now. That’s when I really learned how fast a fire can go.”

— Coastal rancher Barbara Black, remembering a 1950s fire, from a 1995 video interview at her ranch on Meyers Grade Road

“I saw a Cat’ driver heading out and I hitched a ride. He was cutting a fire trail when he made a funny kind of turn and I asked where he was going. He said we were surrounded. He found a kind of depression, drove in put the blades down and dug in as far was we could, then we got under the ‘Cat and … the fire went by.”

— Joe Price, Press Democrat photographer, remembering the Creighton Ridge fire northwest of Cazadero, 1978

A long look back at 20th century fires indicates that we have forgotten more about our wildfires than we have remembered — unless you were among those quoted above, whose recorded memories serve as warnings not always heeded.

Jim Modini, who lived to his mid-90s and died a decade ago, kept a diary from his teenage years in the 1930s. It resides now in Special Collections in the Schulz Library at Sonoma State University.

His day-by-day history of the ranch that was in his family for 150 years has enough fire stories to convince the nonbeliever that wildfires are repeat offenders.

The Big Geysers/Black Mountain/Pine Flat area of the Mayacamas range, where last month’s fire began, has burned often, even before the fire young Jim wrote about. That one surrounded the Big Geysers Resort to the east, trapping, among others, a former president of Mexico, Plutarcho Elias Calles. (A little black humor: He would make a great “Jeopardy” question.)

The same area would burn several more times, up to and including 2009. Now the Kincade fire has left 3,000 acres of what is now the Modini-Ingalls Ecological Preserve, in Jim’s words again, “black and smoking.” No one thought to give names to fires in those years, so we remember them, or find them in our research, by year and location only.

For decades, foresters, lumbermen and high country ranchers have warned that Sonoma County citizens have not paid enough attention to the dangers of wildfire. It is highly probable that is no longer the case.

In the 19th and 20th centuries we could blame it all on nature — dry lightning and down-slope winds. Now there are multiple reasons, high-tension power towers being just one, land use — and abuse — another. The increased frequency is undeniable and raises profound questions.

There was a 50-year-hiatus between the Hanly fire of ’64 and the Tubbs fire of 2017, burning along nearly identical paths. But it took just two years for the Kincade fire to come from the same direction and threaten the same kind of destruction or worse.

While the affected towns two years ago included Glen Ellen and Kenwood and The Springs (again), in 2017 the Nuns fire in the Sonoma Valley hills began as a shorthand copy of the Nunn’s Canyon fire of ’64.

The message? There may be others lurking right behind them.

It’s not always open land that is burned. On that September day in 1923, when Boyes Springs and environs burned, it must have seemed that all of Northern California was in flames.

The first newspaper accounts of the ’23 events have to be viewed with a full dose of skepticism. Case in point: The Press Democrat headline on Sept. 19 that year screams at us that there were “10,000 Homeless in Berkeley.” But the later stories, the summing up, after the air had cleared enough for deep breaths, told sad enough stories of 35 blocks, 548 homes destroyed. Bad enough, thank you.

Not that reporters and editors didn’t have their hands full. In one day, while Berkeley burned. flames swept off the foothills above the Sonoma Valley and burned the entire resort town of Boyes Springs, including the popular bathhouses, the original Boyes Springs Hotel (rebuilt as the Sonoma Mission Inn), the post office and scores of summer homes plus adjoining resort communities like Sonoma Vista and Caliente Springs.

Remembering past wildfires

“When we awoke this morning we looked out on a black world. The whole country is black and smoking.”

— Jim Modini’s diary, Sunday, Sept. 29, 1936

“The fire then whipped up again and came down the gap between the foothills and Woodleaf Park and Boyes Springs. The whole settlement was instantly ignited. … With cries of horror, people fled from their homes.”

— Sonoma Index-Tribune, September 1923

“It started below where the Fort Ross School is now and burned for three days straight, right across from where I am sitting now. That’s when I really learned how fast a fire can go.”

— Coastal rancher Barbara Black, remembering a 1950s fire, from a 1995 video interview at her ranch on Meyers Grade Road

“I saw a Cat’ driver heading out and I hitched a ride. He was cutting a fire trail when he made a funny kind of turn and I asked where he was going. He said we were surrounded. He found a kind of depression, drove in put the blades down and dug in as far was we could, then we got under the ‘Cat and … the fire went by.”

— Joe Price, Press Democrat photographer, remembering the Creighton Ridge fire northwest of Cazadero, 1978

And, to the northwest, on the same September day, another blaze began above Armstrong Grove, threatened Guerneville and burned all the way to Jenner. Guerneville lost just two houses and Armstrong Grove was saved, but the fire burned west, threatening Cazadero and destroying the old mill town of Markham’s. Nearby Duncans Mills was threatened but saved by residents who set backfires. Tagged for posterity by River historian Ray Clar as “the fire that burned from Guerneville to the sea,” it destroyed many millions of dollars worth of valuable timber.

As if two were not enough, another blaze started on Cobb Mountain, swept across Alexander Valley and quite literally encircled the towns of Geyserville and Healdsburg. And, of course, the Sonoma Coast has not been spared, as indicated by above quotes from photographer Price and the late Barbara Black.

Is it possible we just keep writing the same old fire stories, over and over?

While we may not all agree on why it seems to keep happening, there is no doubt at all that wildfires are not only a part of our landscape, but are coming faster and more furiously in comparison to the “old days.” This fact makes it sorely tempting to suggest that “the answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind.”

That’s cute but far too simplistic, of course. We have to take charge. There’s no going back to the days when the only solution was to save what buildings could be salvaged and just let it burn. We have to keep trying to figure it out.

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