Anyone who lived through that week probably never forgot it. Wildfires were driven by drought conditions and unbearable temperatures, with newspapers reporting some new calamity nearly every day. Thousands of acres burned in separate incidents around the Sonoma Valley and near Petaluma while a large block in downtown Napa was lost in a fast-moving blaze. And that was just the second week of July, 1913.
The most dramatic of the fires happened as that week began. “Shortly before midnight the fire on Mount Tamalpais gained great headway approaching Mill Valley,” reported the wire service story that appeared in the Press Democrat on July 9. “[T]he flames are within half a mile of the city boundary. If the wind veers, Mill Valley and Larkspur are doomed.” Evacuation orders were issued for Mill Valley, Larkspur, Corte Madera and the little community called Escalle.
The fire had started a day earlier and was not considered a serious threat; the cute little train that putted along the “Crookedest Railroad in the World” continued bringing guests to the hotel and the tavern near the peak of the mountain, one of the Bay Area’s top tourist attractions with panoramic views. There was little concern at first when visitors were told the train wouldn’t be running for a while because the flames were near the tracks but when the phone line went down and the fire could be seen from the porch, people began to panic. As the sun was about to set and guests were threatening to take their chances walking down the mountain, it was agreed they would try to get through on the train. With the passengers wrapped in wet sheets, the train slowly chugged down the rails with its many switchbacks, now less picturesque as trees burned on either side. The train car caught fire at least once. The engineer stopped and shouted he would no longer take responsibility for what happened and some passengers got off. “Windows cracked and broke,” according to a first-hand account that appeared in the San Francisco Call. “Sparks flew in through the broken windows and set fire to clothing. Slowly the train rolled through the banks of fire. Every minute seemed an hour.” Two women were unconscious when the train finally pulled into the Mill Valley station after dark.
All Bay Area National Guard companies were mobilized, including Santa Rosa’s Company E as shown in the Press Democrat front page to the right. They joined 8,000 soldiers, sailors and firemen from San Francisco along with volunteers. Thankfully the winds calmed, but it still took them three days to beat out the fire using only simple hand tools and wet sacks.
The Mt. Tamalpais fire wasn’t the only major disaster in the Bay Area that season. After it was well under control, Lt. Hilliard Comstock and some of the others from Company E were sent to Santa Cruz. They could well have spent weeks chasing regional fire threats. Nor was Tamalpais even the worst; in September about 80,000 acres burned in Napa County, cutting a swath from Lake Berryessa to the Delta – which at the time was the worst wildfire in California history, although now it doesn’t even rank in the top 20. It was also the summer that Jack London’s incredible Wolf House burned before he was able to sleep in it a single night.
A major cause of the high fire risk that year was California’s suffering through a second year of drought, which was particularly bad in the North Bay. The Sonoma County average rainfall – as measured in Santa Rosa – is about 30 inches per season. The 1911-1912 rain year was 18.44 inches, or about sixty percent of normal; in 1912-1913 it was a little over 24 inches, which was down in the low-normal range. (A thorough discussion of local historic rainfall can be found in an earlier item, “WATER CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS.”)
For Santa Rosans, the worst of the worst came on the afternoon of Friday, July 11. Everyone was probably breathing a sigh of relief because the morning Press Democrat reported the Tamalpais blaze was contained. Then at noon the fire bell sounded; two houses were aflame on lower Seventh street in the Italian neighborhood. The SRFD was able to save one house but the other was a complete loss. Afterwards, someone checked the city reservoir – and found that fighting those fires had drawn water levels dangerously low to just five feet.
The mayor contacted both the PD and Santa Rosa Republican, asking them to alert the public: No lawns or gardens should be watered through the weekend, and “be as sparing in the use for domestic purposes as possible.”
Nearly everyone in Santa Rosa ignored his plea.
“A trip along one of the principal resident streets of the city Friday evening showed that in fourteen blocks there were but three houses in front of which the lawn was not being sprinkled,” the Republican grumbled. Those inclined to conspiracy theories apparently thought the mayor was crying wolf because water wagons were still hosing down the streets – essential because many people still used horses – and both papers had to explain the wagons didn’t use city water, instead sprinkling what the McDonald Water Company supplied from (what’s now known as) Lake Ralphine.
But we shouldn’t judge the water wasters too harshly. July 11 was also remarkable for setting the all-time record for the hottest day in Santa Rosa history – 113 degrees at one o’clock, with 126 recorded in direct sun (see historical temperatures). It was hotter in Santa Rosa than Phoenix (110) or Fresno (108). Because of the scorching heat the Petaluma Argus reported hundreds of chickens died; any apples hanging on the south and west side of trees turned brown.
It was an age before refrigeration and air conditioning, of course, and aside from splashing on some water from the tap or garden hose, relief only came from the ice plant at the Grace Brothers’ brewery on Third street. The place was mobbed, with five men required to serve the long line of sweaty Santa Rosans. The PD noted, “Many came in autos and buggies carrying 50 to 100 pounds each, while others on bicycles and afoot took 5 to 25 pounds in sacks or wrapped in paper.”
The heat wave passed but by the end of the month Santa Rosa enacted emergency water measures, as seen in the notice shown here. It was a throwback to the water rationing prior to 1907 discussed in the link above, except then the borderlines were east/west of Mendocino avenue with watering allowed every day at different times. The new edict was north/south of Fourth street on alternating days which was ever so much better because. Everyone was allowed to go nuts with their hoses on Sunday nights and a few neighbors probably even had water fights, wasteful though they be.
MAYOR MERCIER SAYS USE WATER SPARINGLYThe Supply is Too Low to Trifle With and Irrigation Should Stop For Few days
“The city water supply is too low to permit irrigation of lawns and leave sufficient for fire protection and even scant domestic uses.”
This statement was made in the office of the REPUBLICAN today by Mayor J. L. Mercier, directly after his return from the noonday blaze on Seventh street. The situation became apparent when water was needed to fight the blaze to which the department had been summoned.
“The reservoir was practically empty at the close of the day yesterday and after the pumps had worked all night there was but 5 feet of depth in our 15 foot reservoir.
“The water is simply–not there. We may as well admit the fact before loss of property–perhaps life–by fire drives the information into our hearts–or pockets.”
The mayor wished the REPUBLICAN to inform the people of the facts and beg them in their own interests–for their own protection to USE NO WATER FOR IRRIGATION PURPOSES until Monday at the earliest and to be as sparing in the use for domestic purposes as possible until a full reservoir shall give the property of the citizens the protection of a supply for possible use at fires.
Santa Rosa is not the only city thus situated. Stringent rules have been proclaimed in many California cities and in others citizens have been warned and cautioned–are continued daily.
Your home may be lost if water is squandered in careless domestic use, and, more especially if it is wasted in trying to save a few lawns.
It is up to the citizens and theirs will be the responsibility if serious trouble results from a neglect of this warning.RECORD FLIGHTS OF MERCURYHot Stunts of the Local Thermometers
The “oldest resident” with his record of long ago hot spells was not around today, or if he was visible nobody met him. Thursday, July 10th, was the “hottest day,” with a maximum of 105, but this day, the 11th, at 11 A. M. the small god with the winged heels flew up to 107 degrees above zero. This is the registration of the big mercury machine of Lawson & Rinner on Fourth street, and while the peculiar position of the recording instrument may add two degrees over the government reading, this is the correct heat record on Fourth street, Santa Rosa. Today is the fourth transit of the mercury across the 100 line in this locality this year…The official maximum reported for Friday by the weather observer was 111 1-2 in the shade. In the sun 126 1-2.
[..]– Santa Rosa Republican, July 11, 1913WATER WARNING GOES UNHEEDEDCitizens Fail to Realize the Danger of Famine
Property owners of the city who use the city water were very slow to respond to the urgent warning given out Friday by Mayor Mercier concerning the sprinkling of lawns and the general wasting of water. People in general do not seem to appreciate the seriousness of the situation. There is more water available today (Saturday) than there has been for the past two days, but the danger line is not passed by any means, and the city may face a water scarcity that will be of a lasting nature unless the citizens are willing to co-operate with the authorities in the matter of conserving the supply.
The sprinkling of the streets has been carried on an usual, and this has led to an opinion expressed many times that the warning against the waste of water is a cry of “wolf, wolf.”
This is not the truth as the city is buying water used on the streets from the McDonald company and is spending money to keep the streets in fair condition and the dust partly laid, that the comfort of the people may not be lacking.
If, on the other hand the citizens will show as much consideration for themselves in refraining from the useless waste of water at a time when danger threatens, the famine will easily be avoided. A trip along one of the principal resident streets of the city Friday evening showed that in fourteen blocks there were but three houses in front of which the lawn was not being sprinkled. As Mayor Mercier tersely expressed it, “Rather your lawn burn than your house.” A few days of rest and the thirsty lawns may drink again and in the meantime the people may sleep more securely in the knowledge that the fire pressure will defend their homes.– Santa Rosa Republican, July 13, 1913WOULD YOU LIKE TO BE ICEMAN?He’s Kept Might Busy These Days–Several Ice Men on the Job
Grace Brothers ice plant at the brewery has been having a heavy run the past week. Business has been brisk at the brewery itself. Owing in the warm weather beginning the Fourth, there has been a steady increasing demand for ice from all parts of town and the ice man has been unable to keep up with the demand.
For several days past many people have been going to the ice plant personally and securing what ice they wanted and carrying it away. Yesterday the place was fairly thronged and several men were engaged in getting out the ice and waiting on customers.
At 1 o’clock there was a long string of people lined up waiting their turn and no less than five men waiting on them. Yet the line was constantly lengthening.
Many came in autos and buggies carrying 50 to 100 pounds each, while others on bicycles and afoot took 5 to 25 pounds in sacks or wrapped in paper.– Press Democrat, July 12, 1913