You the boys from Rincon?” The man asked the three teenagers. They said yes.
“You better get your butts back home,” the Fire Captain told them. “The Calistoga Fire is heading to Santa Rosa fast.”
Edd Vinci and his friends were stunned. They were there in the Glen Ellen Forestry Station because they were waiting for a truck to give them a ride to the fire line in the nearby hills, where a blaze had everyone worried because it was headed for the town of Sonoma. What would be more important than fighting that danger? And what could a fire over in Napa have to do with his neighborhood in Rincon Valley?
Edd and the Fisher brothers did as they were told, hopping on the firetruck heading back to Santa Rosa. It was around 4PM on Monday, September 21, 1964.
Before that day was over, the 16 year-old Edd Vinci would face a wall of flames rushing towards him faster than he could possibly run, and in that moment felt certain he was about to die.1
This is the story of Santa Rosa’s 1964 Hanly fire. There were other major fires burning at the same time; the Rincon Valley boys were originally headed to the one which was called the Nunns Canyon/Kenwood/Sonoma Valley fire, which threatened Sonoma City and would nearly wipe out the Springs villages. There was the Mt. George fire burning through the canyons east of Napa City, headed for Fairfield. All told, there were 94 wildfires in the North Bay during the ten days between September 18-28. There are many interesting and exciting stories to tell of those days, but this is not the place. This is just the story of the 1964 Hanly fire and how it descended upon Santa Rosa.
Of particular interest is that the 1964 Hanly fire almost exactly matches the path of the 2017 Tubbs fire. As far as can be determined, this was also the path of the Great Fire of 1870. As mentioned in that article, once can be an accident; twice could be a coincidence but three times is a pattern.
The Hanly fire was first spotted at 10:15AM on Saturday, September 19. It was the end of a fairly typical Wine Country autumn week; days in the upper 80s, cool nights with a marine layer hugging the coast. The Press Democrat weather forecast called it “picnic weather.” The forecast also mentioned “very high fire danger” and the State Forestry Dept. told the PD the fuel moisture index was at 3, which is “about as low as it gets.”
The earliest record of the Hanly fire came from the Napa Register. Most of the short article concerned two Napa homes endangered by grass fires elsewhere, but mentioned there was a fire on top of Mt. St Helena which was “…reported spreading rapidly because of high winds on the peak.” An eyewitness told the newspaper the fire “seems to be swirling around on itself” and watched as a stand of trees at the top of the mountain went up in flames.
Harriett Madsen, who wrote the occasional “Napa Valleyhoo” society and gossip column for the Press Democrat, later gave a fuller account of Day One:
[It] started on Mt. St. Helena in the high rocks and timber…to the right of the Lake County Highway, north of Hanly’s on the Mountain about 3/4 of a mile. It was not thought to be too serious at the time. Calistoga Fire Department responded and held the situation until the Forestry units began arriving. The fire, during that day, was contained in about 40 acres of timber and rocks. As time went on, the fire refused to be contained…it kept creeping and popping up where one would least expect it.
How the fire started will be forever unknown, unless someone spits out a deathbed confession. It was a wild, incredibly steep area only familiar to deer hunters, who instantly became the prime suspects. In a wrapup story that went over the AP wire it was speculated a “carelessly tossed cigarette butt would have been enough” to start the blaze. In the years since, the “careless hunter” theory has become baked into the Hanly fire story as established fact.
But in the Press Democrat’s first edition on the day after the fire began, another possibility was mentioned: Some deer hunters burn grass on the last day of hunting season, both to promote new growth to feed the deer in the spring and for clearing tall grass at favorite hunting spots to give the hunter better sight lines. The Hanly fire indeed began on the closing day of deer hunting season – a season which hunters had found disappointing, with the number of deer killed down 20 percent.
And while fires are commonly named after some landmark near their origin, calling it Hanly was particularly apropos. Hanly’s-on-the-Mountain was a roadhouse off of Highway 29 that catered to deer hunters; shooters brought their kill there to be weighed and measured for the deer pool to see who bagged the largest buck that season, with several dozen being carted in some weeks. The place rented cabins to hunters from outside the area and hosted an annual venison BBQ that drew tourists. Whether the fire began with a dropped cigarette or as a deliberate act to improve next year’s hunting, you can bet the man responsible was a regular at Hanly’s place.
It was that later AP story which first called it the Hanly fire, likely getting the name from the same person in the Forestry Dept. who thought it might have been caused by a cigarette. That first day it was just called the “Mount St. Helena fire.” On day two it became known as the “Calistoga fire.”
Conditions were bad again that Sunday with only 15 percent humidity, but it looked as if the danger was minimal from this fire. It was considered to be contained at least once, having burned only about 40 acres. All of the serious action was in Sonoma county fighting the blaze around Kenwood.
Then around sunset came the Diablo Winds, gusting over 70MPH.
Before firefighters could be brought into position, the front was bearing down on Calistoga from the north and east sides. Burned to the ground was the Tubbs Mansion, near where the 2017 fire would later originate. Forty other houses disappeared.
An emergency evacuation of all 2,500 residents was called, with Calistoga police driving through town with bullhorns announcing there were school buses waiting to take everyone to St. Helena. Ranchers opened gates for their animals to run free and hopefully not burn to death. Several owners of resorts around the geysers uncapped the vents to allow the hot water to shoot 75 feet into the air and douse their buildings. Later it was agreed the only thing that saved the town was a sudden shift of wind direction.
Day three. When the sun came up Monday morning the winds were still over 50MPH at higher elevations, and the Sonoma Valley situation was now a firestorm, creating its own winds. Air tankers could no longer fly over it to do water drops; the only way the fire chiefs could get a good view of the battlefield was by borrowing a giant helicopter from PG&E.
The Hanly-Calistoga fire kept burning eastward, while some late morning winds were also starting to blow the other side of the fire west toward Knights Valley. That western front grew. It kept growing. “By late afternoon the astonishing fact was clear: The fire was uncontrollable in the rich, dry fuels of the timber country and if it was to be stopped it would be at Santa Rosa,” the Press Democrat wrote the next day.
By 6PM there were flames on both side of Franz Valley School Road and when the sun finally surrendered to the fire-lit darkness, again came the Diablo Winds. The monster was now in Mark West Canyon. “From Calistoga Road the fire could be seen racing over the ridges, sweeping down on Santa Rosa,” the PD reported.
While this crisis was swiftly building, paving contractors working on Mark West Springs Road kept to their schedule for oiling the road in the late afternoon and early evening. Because of the closed lane bottleneck, there were backups in both directions as evacuees sought to flee and trucks tried to reach the firelines. County resident engineer Carroll Campbell discovered the situation and argued with the company superintendent, who blithely insisted they weren’t causing a problem. Campbell later fumed over their stupidity to the PD: “They went ahead blindly…it was inexcusable.” There are some stories no fiction writer can make up.
Now began the trying time. Some that night were calm, some were frantic; some were on the street mesmerized by the sight of burning ridgelines, some were urgently pushing children and pets into the family station wagon, some were standing on their roofs with a garden hose while leaning into the powerful and horrible wind which carried the charcoal and chemical smells of homes already lost.
In the hours around midnight the fires touched or threatened everything around Santa Rosa north and east. There were an estimated 500-600 firefighters and volunteers defending the city, including teenagers like Edd Vinci and his pals.
The Montgomery High junior had skipped school that day along with about a quarter of the other students, same as Santa Rosa High. As a Rincon Valley volunteer, Edd had strapped on a five-gallon water tank and backed up the fire dept. by spraying down hotspots when there were neighborhood grass fires. This was far, far different, as the proverbial flames of hell came rushing at breakneck speed down the Rincon Grade.
Vinci and a tiny crew were near the corner of Wallace and Riebli Roads where there was no protection, no place to hide. He wore no firefighter gear nor mask, just his t-shirt, jeans and tennis shoes. He was fuel. “Wow, this is it, we were all going to die,” he remembers thinking more than a couple of times.
“It was a wall of fire coming right at us, coming so fast,” he recalls, and it was as if time stopped – he has no precise memory of how long it took for the firestorm to reach him, seconds or minutes.
There was a roaring sound, he can recall, but not the moment when jets of flames flashed over their heads. “It was on us, and then past us just as fast.” Today he still speaks about it in awe, as if he had been invited onstage by a great magician to participate in one amazing damn trick.
The terrible night crawled on into Tuesday, day four of the Hanly fire. There was a full moon, orange and almost hidden by smoke and raining ash. The fire kept the air in Santa Rosa from cooling off, with the low that night being 84°. You can be sure no one was sleeping.
The mood was grim. About 5,000 homes had been evacuated on the north end of town, from Chanate to Ribeli Roads. Dick Torkelson, the PD news editor was at city hall command center, where the “…gloom is as stifling as the atmosphere. There are no smiles, no jokes; the situation is too serious. Just quiet talk, black coffee and chains of cigarette smoking even by men who quit months ago.”
The immediate concern was the County Hospital on Chanate – unless there was a sudden and drastic shift in the winds the fire would soon reach the campus, where hundreds of patients were still inside.2
In June, Santa Rosa Fire Marshal Michael Turnick had warned the Board of Supervisors that the hospital was a “definite fire hazard…a greater than normal hazard to life” because there was no sprinkler system in the main section. Supervisor “Nin” Guidotti said he objected to Turnick’s “scare approach” and thought the county should punt on a decision until the next year. The matter was tabled.
A small army of firefighters were gathering to defend the hospital including 85 fire units from as far away as Redding. On the line were experienced firemen, National Guardsmen and many teenage students – as many as 600 were there to make a last stand to save Santa Rosa. “Old timers in the fire fighting business and the law enforcement business said they never saw so many policemen and firemen in action in Northern California,” wrote Argus-Courier columnist Bill Soberanes.3
With flames as high as a three or four story building licking up the trees and brush, the orders were given to stand by to evacuate the patients…the doctors and hospital attendants held a meeting as the fire approached and made plans for the evacuation. Despite the nerve shattering situation no one panicked, not even the patients, some of whom were very old, bedridden and in wheelchairs. – Bill Soberanes
Nurses from all three shifts and the entire staff of eleven doctors awaited orders; there were buses and Army Reserve trucks waiting to carry patients to the National Guard Armory and hospitals. “At one point some 30 patients were loaded on buses for evacuation,” the PD reported, “but they were ordered back.” Turnick had made a bold decision not to evacuate patients unless the hospital actually caught on fire.
The Hanly fire announced itself when a bush in the middle of the parking lot burst into flames along with two eucalyptus trees on the edge of the lot.
The Press Democrat: “…The fire raged closer and closer, encircling the hospital on three sides and coming as close as 100 yards.4 Sparks showered the building’s walls but fire fighters bulldozed the area to the West and North and soaked nearby trees.”
Bill Soberanes: “The massive flames continued to literally leap towards the hospital, and we joined the volunteers who climbed on top of it and with wet towels beat out the large cinders that were landing all over the roof.”
The fight to save the county hospital went on for hours while the doctors and nurses comforted the patients who were undoubtedly anxious and fearful. “Inside, the air was stifling hot and smoky. The staff was acting as nonchalant as possible so no panic would arise,” wrote PD reporter Don Engdahl.
The hospital was declared safe around three in the morning, but Hanly would not let go of Santa Rosa so easily. It reached as far west as the modern-day crossing of Mendocino Ave and Fountaingrove Parkway, and on the other side of town it was stopped just north of Badger Road. By 4:30AM authorities said they were starting to get it all under control. By the end of the day it was said to be about 60% controlled.
No story of the Hanly fire has been retold as often as the hospital fight, which has become the stuff of myth. Since then it’s been said Turnick virtually saved the place himself by jumping on a bulldozer to cut a fire break, while others credit Frank Rackerby, the hospital’s building operating engineer for doing same with a tractor. There was nothing in the newspapers at the time supporting either claim, but there were about twelve bulldozers on the line fighting fires here that day.
The takeaway from the 1964 Hanly fire should be how it demonstrated personal courage of so many and not just a few. Assistant Chief George Elliott: “We just had to make a wall to save the city. And that’s what we did. We put everything we had, hands, tools, fingers and sacks. We had wonderful assistance from all the people,” he told the PD, adding without all that help the fire would have burned deep into Santa Rosa.
One of those uncelebrated heroes was Edd Vinci, who worked all night and made it back to the main Rincon Valley firehouse around dawn. He had something to eat and then walked home. The streets were quiet and deserted. Lawn sprinklers splashing water on the roofs of empty homes only added to the surreal quality of that morning, with the City of Roses bathed in dim, red shadowless light.
Map courtesy NASA, “A Partnership Forged by Fire.” Their website has a moveable curtain to compare the 1964 fires with 2017, but the effect will not work on all web browsers.
There are two videos related to the Hanly fire. Roger Halverson made a home movie from the Redwood Village Mobile Home Park on Airport Blvd. which mainly shows air tankers, but there are two views of the fire, probably taken in the late afternoon and evening of Sept. 21. The other short was apparently filmed by the Highway Patrol and mostly shows fire trucks and crews, but there is aerial footage of the fires burning in the timberland.
1 All Edd Vinci quotes from interview, Sept. 6, 2019
2Newspapers reported the patient count from 230 to “over 300.” About ten pediatric patients had already been taken to Memorial as a precaution.
3All Bill Soberanes quotes from Redwood Rancher magazine, October, 1964.
4Other accounts say the flames came within 200 yards and even 20 feet of the buildings.