LeBaron: Historic wildfires' catastrophic lessons

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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.

ON MONDAY NIGHT, the winds on the western slopes of the mountains kicked up. There are people who still find it hard to believe how fast the Hanly Fire traveled — into Knights Valley, then Franz Valley.

Mountain Home Ranch resort owner John Fouts was 17 years old in that “hell week.” He has compiled his memories of patrolling the line with the members of his Calistoga High football team and realizing the winds had changed. He writes, “All I could think of was that the fire was heading directly for the Ranch.” He rode on firetrucks and hitched with neighbors and ran the long road in. “Mom was watching the fire from the top of the hill when she saw me running home.”

With a ranch Caterpillar and a ’dozer blade, he built fire trails, got the horses from the barn and “got them running.”

There were hard choices. What to save and what to let burn. The laundry filled with linens for the summer resort season took precedent over the family home. Fouts’ account captures the drama. His 90-year-old grandfather suffered chest pains, his sister went into labor. Mountain Home lost seven buildings, but the 100-year-old resort survived.

The speed of the firestorm was, indeed, dramatic. One astonished resident of Porter Creek Road reported by phone about 9 p.m. on Monday: “The fire just passed my house heading for Santa Rosa — at 40 miles per hour!”

He wasn’t exaggerating. It burned along Mark West and Riebli roads, taking homes and ranches with it, across Wikiup and Parker Hill Road and in an unbelievably short time, appeared on the ridges above Rincon Valley and Montecito Heights (some 5,000 families in all were evacuated). It advanced along Chanate toward the County Hospital.

Santa Rosans watched in horror, watered their roofs and made plans on where the family would meet if the fire roared down from the ridges into the flatland subdivisions.

Able-bodied men, teenage boys, high school and junior college students were mobilized, handed shovels and hoes and wet sacks or instructed to help pull hose on the lines.

Every trucker in town that had a water carrier was in service. Buses and vans stood by at the hospital, ready to carry the patients to safety. That was clearly a last resort, as doctors agreed that many would die just from being moved.

Santa Rosa firefighters were augmented by San Francisco firemen, sweating profusely in their heavy blue wool uniforms. With the volunteers they formed a line from Mendocino Avenue to Wallace Road. Fire Marshall Mike Turnick, who was in command because the chief was out of town, jumped on a bulldozer, calling up skills learned 15 years earlier working for Union Lumber, and cut a fire break north of the hospital. Then he stationed engines along it, wet it all down and took his ’dozer up Parker Hill Road and cut another break.

People still find it hard to believe. With trees exploding all over the hospital grounds and deer running down the road, some of them on fire, the winds shifted and then died, with the flames just 100 yards from the hospital buildings.

The fire burned down the hill to Mendocino Avenue across from Journey’s End Trailer Park, and stopped.

Think for a moment about what stands in that fire path now, 50 years later — Fountaingrove, Skylane, hotels, medical buildings, fill in the blanks.

IN THE SONOMA VALLEY, the Nunn’s Canyon blaze also kicked up with the new winds, crossed Triniti Road and Cavedale and headed for the towns of Agua Caliente, Fetters Springs and Boyes Springs.

It burned along the high ground paralleling Highway 12, fought fiercely by the Valley of the Moon firemen as well the Sonoma Valley High School football team and other volunteers.

At Mission Highlands, above Sonoma, where the rich and famous lived, United Press board chairman Frank Bartholomew filed stories about the “important” people who volunteered on the fire line, including the chairman of Matson Steamship Lines, several corporate presidents and at least two retired generals.

By the time the winds died, that fire had reached Highway 12 on the outskirts of Sonoma.

The two fires cost 111 permanent homes and 24 summer cabins, an estimated 105 million board feet of lumber and so much pastureland that some ranchers had to sell their stock and begin again.

I KNOW all this is old news. But it’s been a dozen years since I last brought it up in these pages. A recent exhibit at the Oakland Museum of the Oakland-Berkeley Hills fire in 1991 called it to mind. And when the fires began in Pope Valley and then at Berryessa last week the specter of 1964 loomed large indeed.

Certainly, it is one of our hometown history milestones, unpleasant though it may be. It stands with other adventures, like the Geysers Fire 10 years ago, when neighbors rallied to save Shirley and Jim Modini’s ranch home on Pine Flat Road. Or the Creighton Ridge Fire in the coastal hills in 1978 when the PD’s reporter and photographer (Bob Klose and Joe Price Jr.) took refuge under a bulldozer as the flames went by, hoping the gas tank was fireproof. Or, beyond our recall, the terrible October of 1923 when pretty much the whole county — indeed, the whole state — seemed to be on fire.

That was the year the town of Boyes Springs and many of the hot springs resorts in the Sonoma Valley burned. And, at the same time, a Russian River area fire, as historian Ray Clar liked to say with appropriate drama, “burned from Guerneville to the sea,” destroying enough timber to build another San Francisco.

The hope is that we learn from remembering. That’s the text for today: Never assume that a fire is far enough away. Or that it can’t happen here.

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