The “Diablo Winds” are apparently a Regular Thing now, with the high, dry northeasterly gales ripping through the North Bay and too often creating firestorms. But how common were these damned winds historically?
Start with our three examples that caused major fires: The 2017 Tubbs Fire, the forgotten Great Fire of 1870 and the 1964 Hanly Fire. Beyond those incidents, however, it’s hard to say with much certainty.
First, “Diablo Winds” is a modern term, invented in 1991 (Wikipedia has a good explanation of the meteorology), so looking for that name in the old newspapers is a non-starter. A century ago and more they sometimes called any bad winds “Boreas,” although that was the classical name for a cold north wind often accompanied by rains. But the bigger problem is that our ancestors didn’t care much about recording wind directions or speeds; while they diligently kept records of rainfall down to the hundredth of an inch, apparently no one in Sonoma County had an anemometer in the old days.
Searches of the Santa Rosa and Healdsburg newspapers turned up surprisingly few historic windstorms that match the Diablo pattern with certainty (I limited my research to destructive weather events during the California autumn months with no rain mentioned). If I find more I’ll add it here and flag the update in the title of this article, but I think it’s safe to presume these big winds weren’t very common. Sources of all newspaper items are transcribed below.
The most surprising discovery was 1871, the year following the Great Fire. Once again there were “large fires were seen in the direction of Napa and Sonoma…It was the hardest blow ever experienced in this locality.”
“A vicious wind” in 1887, which might also have been a freak tornado, took down a two-story hotel at Los Guilucos that was under construction. “Those who witnessed the disaster say the sides and interior of the building seemed to melt away before the blast and the roof pausing in mid air a moment like a hawk hovering above its prey, fell with a crash that was heard for miles.”
There are two accounts of the two-day storm in 1892; rain was mentioned in Petaluma but not elsewhere. It was “one of the severest [windstorms] felt in Sonoma county for a number of years,” the Sonoma Democrat reported, with hundreds of mature trees downed. An elderly woman died of fright.
“The dry north winds that had been blowing for the last four or five days culminated on Sunday afternoon in a violent wind storm,” the Healdsburg Tribune noted in 1900, making it sure bet to be classified as a Diablo Wind. Then a few weeks later, an even more destructive wind hit the town following a light rain: “The wind almost reached the power of a cyclone and is said by old settlers to have been the speediest blow ever experienced here. Houses rocked on their foundations as if shaken by an earthquake.”
Our last historic windstorm conveniently also provides our obl. Believe-it-or-Not! finish. This item is from the Press Democrat in 1919:
| The heavy wind storm of Wednesday night did many queer things, but probably none more novel will be reported than that experienced on the A. C. Hull ranch near town. A barn on the place contained a horse. During the height of the storm the barn was blown over, making two complete turns and landing right side up, uninjured. The horse was left standing without any injury where the barn had stood.
A terrific wind storm prevailed throughout the county on Thursday night, during which large fires were seen in the direction of Napa and Sonoma, and it is feared serious damage was done in those localities. About Santa Rosa, sign boards were demoralized to a considerable extent, that of the Kessing Hotel being torn from its fastenings and broken to pieces. Those of the telegraph office and Santa Rosa Book Store, were blown down. The tin roof of the store occupied by Carithers & Martin, was transferred to the building of E. T. Farmer, next adjoining. Wind mills upon the premises of Windfield Wright, Henry Worthington and Adam Shane, were blown down, and orchards through the Township literally stripped of fruit. It was the hardest blow ever experienced in this locality, and our people are fortunate in getting off with damages so slight.
– Sonoma Democrat, October 14 1871
HIGH WIND —One of the most violent windstorm ever known in this region raged last Tuesday. It subsided during the night without causing any material damage in any way. But it made a lively dust.
– Sonoma Democrat, November 20 1880
A Vicious Wind.
The new two-story hotel at Los Guilucos town was razed to the ground during a violent wind storm which occurred there about 7:45 o’clock Thursday evening. If the building was as substantial as its appearances would indicate it certainly must have been a vicious wind, and the descriptions given by the workmen who were on the spot are now too highly colored. The men employed in tinning the roof had not been out of the building three minutes when the crash came. The air was full of flying timbers, some of the largest of which weighed several hundred pounds and were hurled high above the tops of the trees and lodged on top of the hotel before it fell. It seemed to be the nature of a whirlwind, and the doors and windows of the structure being open its interior formed an amphitheatre for the sports and athletic feats of Boreas. Those who witnessed the disaster say the sides and interior of the building seemed to melt away before the blast and the roof pausing in mid air a moment like a hawk hovering above its prey, fell with a crash that was heard for miles. Not a timber was left standing and all that remained to mark the spot where had once stood the first building in Los Guilucos town was a few pieces of roof timbers held together by long narrow strips of twisted and misshaped tin. Other reports received from the valley are somewhat contradictory of the nature of the storm. A gentleman residing within two miles of the hotel says the wind was somewhat stronger than a zephyr, but not of sufficient violence to cause him or his family any alarm concerning the safety of their residence and outbuildings. The damage it is estimated will not be over 4,000. Messrs. Ludwig & Kroncke visited the scene of the disaster Friday.
– Sonoma Democrat, November 26 1887
Early Monday morning Petaluma was visited by the swiftest and most disastrous windstorm known for many years. The wind did not only whistle, but it howled and groaned through every chink accessible. This account will read very true to many Petalumans, for most of them were kept awake by the ceaseless noise of boreas and his companion, the rain. Trees were uprooted in many parts of the town. Robert Spotswood, on Keller street had a pepper and an acacia tree blown down. A eucalyptus was blown from the sidewalk in front of the Newburgh residence on Liberty street. A poplar was uprooted at Father Cleary’s, and many other trees. The fence was blown from in front of the D street school. Also the fence surrounding the Sweed property on Sixth and B streets. The scaffolding left by the carpenters on the handsome Haubrick residence now in course of construction was scattered far into the street. Not satisfied with this, the wind sailed three miles out of town and lifted a goodly section of roof off the old adobe built by General Vallejo in the early days and now used as a home by M. Riely. This old building was perfectly strong and secure and it must have been a terrific wind to carry that roof as it did.
– Sonoma Democrat, December 3 1892
Effects of the Storm of Sunday Night.
The storm last Saturday and especially Sunday and Sunday night was one of the severest felt in Sonoma county for a number of years.
Trees were blown down all over town Sunday night. Near the corner of the Baptist Church, a large maple, which Street Commissioner Cozad will remember very well, blew down across B street.
The top of a large pine tree, standing near the residence of R. M. Swain, broke off about twenty-five feat from the top, and in falling just missed the house. The fragment was fully one foot in diameter, which shows the force of the wind.
Two large trees standing near the home of O. H. Hoag were blown down. They struck the house and rather demolished the kitchen.
A tree on William Hopper’s place fell Sunday night and carried with it a large section of Mr. Hopper’s front fence.
Keegan Bros, heard the wind whistle to the tune of $100 Sunday night. The force of the wind tore off the front sign hanging to the awning and carrying it in struck and broke the beautiful plate glass window.
The wind also played havoc with the sky-light of the engine house, picking it up and setting it down rather roughly where it did not belong, breaking every pane of glass. A number of panes of glass were also broken in the courthouse.
Carithers & Forsythe and George F. King have the turbulent elements of Sunday night to blame for misplacing their signs.
Beldin & Hehir’s sign, aided by the gentle zephyrs, drifted from its moorings and tapped the window of the postoffice and the adjacent transom a little too hard,
A passenger on the down train from Guerneville says that all hands were required to get off and help remove two large trees that had fallen across the track a few miles from Guerneville.
About seventy trees are down across the road from Duncan Mills to Guerneville, and one citizen from Bodega says the storm Saturday and Sunday was the severest felt in that windy locality for years. It blew down most of the fences in Bodega, together with several trees and old out-buildings that were insecurely anchored.
The Pacific Methodist College came near being scalped when the gale caught one corner of the tin roof and tore off about six hundred square feet of the roof.
A large maple in front of the residence of Dr. Savage, on Fourth street, succumbed to the breeze.
Many windmills throughout the valley got more wind than they could stand, and went to the ground, and one barn was blown down.
No very heavy damage to property is reported.
The saddest occurrence of all was the death of Mrs. Clark, elsewhere reported, who was afflicted with heart troubles, and it is believed her death was precipitated by nervousness and fright occasioned by the storm.
– Sonoma Democrat, December 3 1892
The dry north winds that had been blowing for the last four or five days culminated on Sunday afternoon in a violent wind storm. The winds and the intense heat of the sun have been of great advantage to prune drying, condensing into a few days what would take weeks to dry. It’s an ill wind that blows evil to the fruit dryer.
– Healdsburg Tribune, September 27 1900
Violent Windstorm Does Considerable Damage Tuesday Night.
The rain that had been gently falling for the previous few days, culminated in a terrific windstorm on Tuesday night. Old Bordeas went on a toot, tearing down signs, breaking windows, uprooting trees and doing damage to a greater or less extent in all directions. The wind almost reached the power of a cyclone and is said by old settlers to have been the speediest blow ever experienced here. Houses rocked on their foundations as if shaken by an earthquake and sleep became an unknown quantity with many residents. The damage to ornamental trees must have been considerable in the aggregate. The electric lights were snuffed out at about 11 o’clock but resumed business a few hours later. The rainfall for Tuesday night was 1.53, and 9.11 for the season. The symmetrical circle of umbrella trees on the Plaza was broken, two of the trees falling prone on the sward, and the others being blown out of perpendicular. Silberstein’s sign became loosened at one end and becoming a plaything in the power of the winds, smashed much of the glass front of the store into smithereens. The early morning hours indicated that the proprietors had gone out of business, and had moved their signs to other parts of the city, Carl Muller, who has kept a record of the rainfall for many years, reports the windstorm as severe, if not more so, than any previous windstorm within his memory.
– Healdsburg Tribune, November 22 1900
BARN MOVED BY WIND, BUT HORSE REMAINS BEHIND
The heavy wind storm of Wednesday night did many queer things, but probably none more novel will be reported than that experienced on the A. C. Hull ranch near town. A barn on the place contained a horse. During the height of the storm the barn was blown over, making two complete turns and landing right side up, uninjured. The horse was left standing without any injury where the barn had stood.
– Press Democrat, November 29 1919