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THE FORGOTTEN GREAT FIRE OF 1870

In 2017 Santa Rosa suffered the Tubbs Fire and before that, the 1964 Hanly Fire. But way back in 1870, yet another firestorm charged over the mountain towards Santa Rosa. Our ancestors simply called it The Great Fire.

The California fire history maps only go back to 1951 and none of the reports yet published by the state mention the 1870 disaster, although it followed the same pattern as what happened last year. Driven by very high northerly winds, the October 1870 fire started near Calistoga and when it was joined by a blaze from St. Helena it became unstoppable. The Santa Rosa newspaper reported, “soon the flames were beyond control, devouring everything within their reach…and swept along the mountains with such terrible speed that all efforts to check its progress were given up.”

No map was published of the burn area, but the Sonoma Democrat described which properties were hit – see articles transcribed below. A deed search would probably produce a reasonably accurate map, but we know it stopped three miles from Santa Rosa. Measuring from the 1870 city limits, that would mean it burned through Fountaingrove.

Cal Fire map of regional wildfire history since 1951

 

Just as in 1964 and last year, there was also a simultaneous fire on the Sonoma Valley ridge. It burned as far south as Napa City – like the recent Nuns Fire – and on the Sonoma county side the fires also matched the 2017 disaster: “The smouldering stumps and blackened fields can be seen all along the Sonoma road,” reported the Sonoma Democrat in 1870.

The crisis came the night of October 16, the third night of what we now call, “Diablo Winds.” Santa Rosa was on edge because of “the close proximity of the fire on the hills;” a collection was taken up among townsfolk to pay three men to stay up all night and sound the alarm if the fire threatened.

What the Petaluma Argus observed six days afterwards sounds uncomfortably familiar to 2017: “Fires are yet raging through all the vicinity,” and there was “a smoky haze of the atmosphere through this section seldom if ever before seen.”

There were no deaths – aside from 400 sheep – and the properties harmed were remote farms and ranches. That’s probably the reason you won’t find mention of the 1870 fires in any of our local history books – the authors probably thought it was a fluke. (I stumbled across the details only while reading the old newspapers.)

But looking back on the incident now, the Great Fire of 1870 is unnerving to discover. Once can be an accident; twice could be a coincidence.

Three times is a pattern.

 

Forest fire by Paul Landacre (1893 – 1963), circa 1937

 

THE GREAT FIRE.

One of the most extensive and destructive fires of which we have record, has been raging for the past week on the mountains which divide Sonoma and Napa Counties. From all the sources of information to which we have had access, we are enabled to place before our readers the following particulars: Three fires were started at almost the same time – one near the town of St. Helena on the 13th; one at St. Helena on the 14th, and one at Calistoga on the 15th. Shortly after they had been started a high wind began to blow, and soon the flames were beyond control, devouring everything within their reach. The fires of Calistoga and St. Helena formed a junction, and swept along the mountains with such terrible speed that all efforts to check its progress were given up. The following are the names ot the principal sufferers: Jerry Porter—ranch partially burned, fence entirely destroyed, house and barn saved. Mr. Cash—ranch met the same fate as that of Mr. Porter. Bruce Cocknill-ranch entirely destroyed, including out houses and about ten thousand rails. Wilis Cocknill—fence entirely consumed, together with about eight thonsand pickets and a large number of fine sheep. Mr. Coulter—fencing and a large amount of stock burned. Mr. Woodward—ranch on Mark West Creek partially destroyed. As the wind had now ceased to blow so violently, the fire was checked at this place. South of the places above named, the following destruction took place; Jacob Winegardener—ranch, house, barn, out houses, stock and considerable lumber destroyed. Mr. Johnson—ranch and buildings destroyed. Mr, Hoffman—ranch and all he possessed, with the exception of his riding horse, consumed. Mr. Frederick Vent having removed his fencing, saved his ranch, at which point the fire was checked. Nothing is left to mark the course ol the firey fiend but smouldering ruins. The labors of years has been swept away, and many families left in a destitute condition. As to who started these fires in the first place it is impossible to tell, and perhaps will never be known.

The fire found its way into Sonoma Valley, and considerable damage was done before it could be checked. The first place destroyed was the home of Mrs. Lucy Box, a widow lady, who is left almost penniless. The dwelling, furniture, barn, etc., is now in ruins. This is a sad case, and it is a pleasure to us to learn that our citizens are contributing liberally toward enabling this lady to build up another home for herself and children. The next place it reached was the pasture of the Guilicos Ranch, destroying a great amount of fencing. Mr. Jas. Shaw, an estimable gentleman, was the next sufferer. He lost his house, barn, wagons, and a large amount of lumber. Mr. Shaw is now absent from home, and the news of his great loss has not yet reached him. The smouldering stumps and blackened fields can be seen all along the Sonoma road.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 22 1870

 

Town Watched. —In consequence of the high wind that was prevalent on last Sunday evening, and the close proximity of the fire on the hills, it was deemed advisable to have our town patroled throughout the night. For this purpose a number of our citizens subscribed various sums to a purse for the defrayment of the expenses: Messrs. Park, Metzler, and a person whose name is unknown to us, were appointed to stand guard during the night, and sound the alarm provided the fiery elements approached too closely. There being no necessity to arouse our citizens from their slumbers, the “fire extinguisher” was allowed to remain housed.

– Sonoma Democrat, October 22 1870

 

THE FIRE IN THE MOUNTAINS.– For several days past a fearful fire has been raging in the woods and fields in the region of country between Calistoga and Healdsburg, doing immense damage, especially in and about Calistoga, and producing a smoky haze of the atmosphere through this section seldom if ever before seen. During Friday night and Saturday a very high wind prevailed, driving the fire with fearful rapidity. All of the grain fields, fences and woods from Knight’s Valley to Walnut Station, on the line of the railroad toward Napa City, over a distance of twelve miles, were consumed. The fire is still raging in the woods in the mountains. Further down in the valley, and in the vicinity of Napa City, some ten thousand acres of ground have been burned over, in many instances fences, hay, barns and houses being swept away. In Sonoma county quite an extent of country has also been burnt over, and, in some instances, considerable damage sustained. Among the losses which have come to our knowledge is of a Mr. Coulter, a butcher, of Santa Rosa, whose ranch in the mountains was burned out, and four hundred sheep destroyed. Also, a man named Scalis, living about three miles from Santa Rosa, had his barn burnt, and hay and grain destroyed. Also Mr. James Shaw, Mr. Hoffman, and Mrs. Lucy Box, of Guilicos valley, lost their houses, barns, fences, hay, grain, etc. Fires are yet raging through all the vicinity, and will probably burn until there is a fall of rain.

– Petaluma Weekly Argus, October 22 1870

 

St. Helena, (Napa County), Oct. 21, 1870. Editors Alta: …The fires that have raged in the hills between this place and Calistoga, are nearly extinguished; the damages are as yet not fully ascertained, but they will probably foot up $20,000, the losers in every instance being uninsured. In the valley, conflagrations are frequent, and the ranch-holders have been “fighting fire” night and day for the past two weeks; fences are burned for ten miles in every direction, as is also the lumber on the ground to erect new ones. The trunks of the forest trees are so charred that they will be blown down by the first gale. Krug’s wine cellar came very near being destroyed by a fire which broke out in the stubble, on Monday, but with the assistance of the neighbors, the flames were extinguished, a large number of vines being damaged. A cellar, owned by Jock & McCoy, near thia place, was burned a few days ago, and 24,000 gallons of wine lost, together with 100 tons of grapes, crushed ready for manufacture into wine.

– Daily Alta California, October 29 1870

 

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THE FORGOTTEN FIRES OF FOUNTAINGROVE AND COFFEY PARK

[Editor’s note: You might really be looking for “THE FORGOTTEN GREAT FIRE OF 1870” which describes there was a third firestorm identical to the Tubbs/Nuns Fires that has never been mentioned]

Could this fire happen again? That’s the multi-billion dollar question hanging over everyone who lost homes in Fountaingrove and Coffey Park as they weigh the decision on whether or not to rebuild. There are no good answers; we can’t even be sure our guesses are reasonably good. There’s just too much we don’t know about the world’s changing climate to say this was a freak event or the harbinger of a new terrible normal.

To understand more, I urge everyone to read (or at least, skim) “The Real Story Behind the California Wildfires” by Seattle meteorologist Cliff Mass. He makes several important observations I’ve not seen mentioned elsewhere, particularly that there were hurricane force winds (96 MPH!) at higher elevations before the fire began to spread. The speed of those winds are unprecedented in our neck of the woods and were a significant factor in creating what he calls a “unique mountain-wave windstorm.” Again, it’s a must-read.

Comparisons are being made to the September 1964 Hanly Fire (that’s the correct spelling, not “Hanley”) which burned over the same route – Calistoga to Franz Valley to Mark West Canyon and then driven down into Santa Rosa, likewise by the powerful, unrelenting “Diablo Winds” on a Sunday night. But it did not grow into the hellish firestorm that raged in 2017; it was stopped on Mendocino avenue just outside the now-lost Journey’s End trailer park. In the Press Democrat, Guy Kovner presented a good summary of other historic major Sonoma county fires.

But forgotten since are the two other major fires specific to Fountaingrove and the Coffey Park areas. Each was the most serious fire of that year in Santa Rosa. It just may be a coincidence that these incidents were at the same locations, but at this point, any additional information about our fire history is good to have.

Major factory fires threatened Santa Rosa’s industrial rim in 1909 and again in 1910, but of all the fires in Santa Rosa history, the Fountaingrove fire of 1908 was the one which might have burned down the town.

The fire was huge, easily visible from Healdsburg because it was nearly at the top of the hill. In flames was the landmark “Commandery,” one of the main buildings from the heyday of the utopian colony founded by Thomas Lake Harris. That was the residence for the colony’s men. The fire began when a kerosene lamp exploded, destroying the place so fast that nothing in the three-story mansion could be saved.

“Fortunately the north wind that had been blowing earlier in the day and evening died down, otherwise the flames would have spread,” the Press Democrat reported at the time. From a high ridge like that, just a stiff breeze could have easily thrown embers a mile and a half downwind to the county hospital on (the road later named) Chanate – which also came within 100 feet of burning in the 1964 Hanly Fire (and where a developer now has the go-ahead to build a dense subdivision of up to 800 units).

The fire burned itself out quickly; it’s not clear if the Santa Rosa Fire Department did anything. A pasture also ignited and was easily handled. But had a northern wind still been gusting, firebrands from the Commandery might have blown as far as the core neighborhoods across from the modern-day high school, where almost all Victorian homes had shingle roofs.

While Santa Rosa got a lucky break in 1908, Fortuna did not smile as much on the town in 1939, when a wind-whipped fire swept across 500 acres in (what would become) the Coffey Park neighborhood.

That September 20 fire started at the airport. Today probably only the oldest-timers and aviation buffs know that the town had an airport there; when it opened in 1929 it was first called the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport, then it became the Santa Rosa Airpark and lastly the Coddingtown Airport, which finally closed in 1971 or 1972. The layout of the runways shifted over the years but the way it probably looked at the time of the fire can be seen in the graphic below. (For much more on all the historic airfields in the Santa Rosa area, see the “Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields” site. Don’t miss the commemorative postmark of Luther Burbank looking like an angry muppet.)

Approximate location of the Santa Rosa Municipal Airport runways in 1939

 

The airport fire was completely avoidable, and if not for the serious danger it posed would serve as the script for a Keystone Kops slapstick comedy.

It was the hottest day of the year, with the thermometer reading 104 – hardly conditions to do weed burning, but that’s what a crew of 10-12 men were doing that afternoon on the runways, dragging burning rags behind a truck.

They were working in the southwestern end of the field when the wind suddenly started blowing from the south, sending the fire towards the modern intersection of Coffey Lane and Hopper Ave. It was moving so fast they could not overtake it in the truck, according to the PD.

Naturally, they were unprepared to handle such a runaway blaze so the fire department was called. A single truck with 150 gallons of water was dispatched and quickly emptied. The fire was now out of control.

A second fire truck arrived, as did a crew and truck from the state as the fire line headed towards several farms. Students from the Junior College joined the fight and were credited with saving at least one home.

“Farmers, passing motorists, airport attendants and others fought side by side, beating out the flames with wet sacks and using portable water pumps in the two-hour battle,” the PD reported.

One farmer lost a small house and farm buildings, including a barn; another lost many outbuildings including chicken houses, where many animals died. Two orchards were burned over, power poles went up in flames and a large stack of baled hay continued to burn into the next day. Altogether 13 buildings were destroyed on five properties.

The idiocy of doing a controlled burn on an extremely dry and hot day aside, it’s jaw-dropping that it spread to 500 acres before a city and state fire crew plus a platoon of volunteers could control it – all in an area that was then undeveloped and just a couple of miles from town. What would they have done if the wind changed again and started blowing towards Santa Rosa?

Again, I hasten to add it’s probably just a Believe-It-Or-Not! coincidence that the big fires of 1908 and 1939 happened at the same places as 2017. Those fires don’t even have anything in common with each other; the airport fire was caused by a sudden change of wind and the Commandery burned like a torch amid no winds at all. One fire was avoidable, one probably not. What they do have in common is that both could have been catastrophic had the winds shifted towards Santa Rosa; the town could not have coped with a serious fire on its border at either time.

After presenting lots’o graphs and colorful maps, meteorologist Cliff Mass concludes with an optimistic view that our computer models are probably able to predict when conditions are ripe for a replay of the Tubbs Fire. That’s good news for sure, but the depressing message from history is that disasters aren’t always so foreseeable in reality. Sometimes life-threatening events comes from scientifically-predictable weather conditions, but sometimes the worst danger is just some fool dragging a burning rag behind a truck.

 

Painting of the Commandery by Fountain Grove colonist Alice Parting as it appeared in the Pacific Rural Press, May 18, 1889

 

 

BIG RESIDENCE GUTTED BY FIRE AT FOUNTAINGROVE
A Disastrous Blaze Near Town Wednesday Night

The explosion of the lamp resulted in a fire Wednesday night the destroyed the fine old residence at Fountaingrove, which for years occupied a commanding site on the hill overlooking the valley, greeting the eyes of every passerby along the Healdsburg Road. It was the biggest residence on the estate.

In a remarkedly short space of time, so fiercely did the fire fiend to do its work, the splendid building that rose four stories high, was reduced to smoldering embers. The residence was furnished and the contents cannot be saved. In addition a small creamery was also destroyed.

Shortly before 10 o’clock the fire started. The flames lit up the heavens for miles. People in Santa Rosa climbed into automobiles and carriages and left for the scene. At first many people thought the fire was at the old Pacific Methodist College building, and quite a number of them headed in that direction. Then it was said that it was Frank Steele’s residents near town. All these conjectures proved wrong.

The lamp exploded without warning and Mr. Cowie, who resided in the big house, was slightly burned about the face. The fire spread rapidly. The residence, built entirely of wood, was an easy prey. At the first cry of fire the large force of employees on the Fountaingrove estate rallied and did what they could to prevent the spread of the flames to other buildings. Numerous small hose were attached to faucets. Fortunately the north wind that had been blowing earlier in the day and evening died down, otherwise the flames would have spread. Some flying embers started a fire in the pasture but it was checked.

The house was well built. It had stood for about a quarter century. It was a largest residence on the place. When seen by a Press Democrat representative at the scene of the fire, Kanai [sic] Nagasawa stated that it would be hard to estimate the damage. Probably $35,000 to $40,000 will cover it. It is understood that there was some insurance on the place. Years ago, when the late Thomas Lake Harris published his books, the printing presses and other paraphernalia had aplace in the building destroyed. Of later years it had been used as a residence and for sometime prior to their going away from Fountaingrove Dr. and Mrs. Webley, and the Clarks occupied apartments in it.

There must have been a couple of hundred people in the crowd who drove out from Santa Rosa to the fire. Mr. Nagasawa took in the situation most philosophically, saying while it was too bad it had happened yet he was very thankful no one was hurt, and that there was no wind to scatter the fire further.

The old house will be missed. While it was the largest house it was not considered as fine as that occupied by the late Mr. Harris, which contains some valuable paintings, plate and furnishings. There are many Santa Rosans who have visited the Webleys and the Clarks there, and they will be sorry to learn of the destruction wrought by the fire.

For an hour or more after the fire, and while it was still in progress the telephone line to the Press Democrat office was certainly “busy.” The fire was seen for miles around and inquiries poured into the office.

Mr. and Mrs. Shirley Burris were leaving Healdsburg for Santa Rosa in their automobile at the time the fire started. Its reflection could plainly be seen there, and attracted considerable attention. All along the road people were out watching the flames.

While mention is made of those who went in automobiles and buggies to the fire those who rode horseback and on bikes must not be overlooked. There were many entries in these divisions. Several young ladies galloped on horseback to the scene of conflagration. For his speedy transit to Fountaingrove the Press Democrat representative was indebted to Frank Leppo, who drove his auto. When all the autos returned to town after the fire it made up quite a decent illuminated parade. An effort to reach Fountaingrove by telephone after the fire was met with the information the telephone had been destroyed with the building.

– Press Democrat, June 18 1908

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