(As told by my brother-in-law John Fouts.)
On Friday evening, Calistoga had a football game, I believe at Cloverdale, and we were on the school bus heading up the old Petrified Forest Road and we could see the fire on Mt. St Helena. I was sitting with Jack LeStrange, who lived near the fire area, so we were concerned, but it didn’t look that bad. I believe that Calistoga won the game. The next day the strong north Foehn winds picked up, but I had forgotten about the fire until we received a call from Alpine Volunteer Fire Department that we were sending out trucks as Calistoga was being evacuated.
We had a truck, an old Dodge Powerwagon here at the Ranch under the auspices of Alpine, and I went with the truck, along with my brother George and my step-father, Duane, and I believe my brother-in-law Tom Leonard. We went first up Bennett Lane doing structure protection on a house back up in the hills. CDF was running a big dozer around us, by the Calistoga Reservoir, and was well on the way of connecting to protect that flank. However, the dozer was an old one with cables to work the blade, rather than hydraulics, and a cable broke, so he could only back up the way he came. When he got to where we were, he told us to evacuate, as the fire was now going to flank us. I was on the roof with a hose, and George heard dogs barking inside the house, so he broke open the door and let out a couple of very excited Dobermans [Dobermen?], who joined us on the truck.
Just before evacuating, Duane noticed that the large chicken coop and a new roof on one end and a padlock on the door – clearly a tool shed. He and George broke down the door to see if they could salvage tools before the fire hit. Inside were tools, which they began to fling out into the vineyard, but on the back wall they found a 50 gallon gasoline tank, and under it a case of dynamite with a box of dynamite caps on top. We rolled the gasoline tank through the wall and put the dynamite caps in an incinerator outside. It was then that I learned that dynamite without something to set it off was not particularly dangerous in a fire, or so I was told. We did not stick around to find out. We next went to the other side of Highway 128, where we were joined by a truck from San Francisco.
At that time, volunteer “uniform” consisted of blue jeans and a work shirt, no Nomex for us! The SF firemen were in full black turnouts in the 100 degree weather. I remember being amazed that they could run in all that gear. I remember that one of them remarked as the fire roared past that they could put the damn thing out if it would just stay put for a second. Later that day, I was equipped with a five gallon back pack with a hand pump and was working with John Earls patrolling a fire line we had made around a cabin in the woods. We would take turns using our water and then returning to the truck for a refill. While I was refilling my pack, I saw the fire jump the line and a ran up to warn Earls. He, of course, also saw the jump, and being older and wiser, ran back to the truck.
I, however, was trapped. I started running across an open field with knee high dried grass, jumping a barbed wire fence with a pack on that I would not have dreamed of jumping under normal circumstances. A truck from Idaho spotted me and drove into the field, one of the firefighters reached down and pulled me in and we drove through the flames into the “black”. I was told that if I was ever it that situation again, I should hold my breath and run through the flames as they did with the truck. I promised that I would remember that next time!
Being 17, it never occurred to me that other people might be worried about me. All I could think of was that the fire was heading directly for the Ranch, and that if we could not hold a line here, there was no way we were going to stop it in Franz Valley, so I just wanted to get back to the Ranch. I tried to get the Idaho truck to take me there, but they could not go anywhere without orders, and as their radios were the old crystal variety that could not be tuned to our frequencies, they had to wait for orders in person. I did get a lift from someone who lived locally, I do not remember who, but only to the end of the road. No one in their right mind would come in Mountain Home Ranch Road. I ran into the Ranch from there, well ahead of the fire. Our Alpine truck with George and Duane went into Franz Valley, where they successfully saved the old schoolhouse where mom had attended elementary school.
Mom was watching the fire from the top of the hill when she saw me running home. She received a call from Mr. Mazzola, my football coach, who said that I was missing in action, but that they were organizing a search party out of the football team to look for me. “No,” she said, “I see him running home!” I took our old Cat 22 with a dozer to open up some fire trials while waiting for the fire to hit us.
As the fire approached Grandpa, who was in his nineties, started having chest pains. My sister Judy, who was at the Ranch visiting was nine months pregnant and had different pains. She drove Grandpa to the hospital in her Volkswagen beetle just before the fire hit. Grandpa was fine, and Judy gave birth to my niece the day of the fire! The fire hit the Ranch in two waves – first as a crown fire, jumping ridge top to ridge top at about 3:00 p.m. Before I could see it, I heard the explosions. I remember thinking, “Oh, they are dynamiting to save the Junior Ranch”, remembering what I had read about the 1906 San Francisco fire.
Actually, it was just trees exploding. When the fire storm went over, we had to get inside the lodge as it was too hot outside, but the fire jumped over us. Trees exploded, but seemed to be blown out. The wind was so strong, it was hard to see. After a fire in the 30’s that almost burned down the Ranch [according to Mom, we were saved by the Calistoga Volunteer Fire Department] Dad built the swimming pool on top of the hill above the cabins for fire protection, and connected the pool to a fire hydrant at the cabins.
There were spot fires breaking out throughout the cabins after the fire storm jumped over. I opened the valve at the pool and used the water to put out the spot fires. We had just had a delivery of hay, and the barn was open on three sides, so it caught fire as well. The only accessible gate was next to the barn. “Papa’s Boy” was my favorite horse, and he was the alpha of the herd so I got on him, got all of the horses running and we blasted by the burning barn.
Where we now have a tennis court and meeting room [which we originally built after the fire as the first home of the Mountain Volunteer Fire Department] was all open apple orchard. The wind blew all of the late apples off of the trees and the horses were quite content to stay there eating apples the rest of the fire, only looking up and the crazed deer that would run through as the fire surrounded us. In those days we were always looking for ways to bring in money to get through the winter with no guests. That spring and summer, George and I had cleared the land that is now the subdivision just before Mark West Lodge, next to Safari West.
George must have had thirty cords of oak and madrone cut, spit and stacked on top of the ridge, ready to sell that winter. That wood burned for days. At one point, I remember going into my room, thinking the building would burn. My brother Robby and I were staying that winter in Grandpa’s house. For some reason, I was worried that I would not have anything to wear to school next week, so I grabbed all of my clothes and threw them into the pool. In fact, Grandpa’s house did not burn, and when it was time to go back to school, I didn’t have anything to wear. All of my clothes had soaked for two days in a pool half-filled with ash! Robby teased me about that incident for years.
Mom was working the other side of the Ranch with garden hoses. She faced a Hobson’s Choice: two buildings were burning, the laundry and our family home. She was alone, and could only save one. She reasoned that we could continue to operate without the family home, but we could not without the laundry. We had just finished bringing in all of the linen and mattresses from the cabins for the winter and everything was stored in the laundry. She saved the laundry, but the family home burned.
During World War II, Dad had built a freezer in the basement of the family home out of plywood. We had about 100 pounds of frozen shrimp in that freezer at the time of the fire. When the house burned, the shrimp boiled in the thawed ice and smelled delicious for a while. We were tempted, but didn’t try any.
After a day or two, we had to take the Cat-22 and bury the stuff. The main body of the fire hit us at about 8:00 that night. By then, George and Duane and Tom Leonard were all back from Franz Valley. The Alpine neighbors dropped them off, but wouldn’t stay, as they wanted to protect their homes on the other side of the hill. One of our long time guests, who was my age and worked that summer at the Ranch, John Karvonen, heard about the fire on the radio. He borrowed his grandmother’s Cadillac and drove up to see if he could help out.
As he came in Mountain Home Ranch road, the road was blocked by fire burning on both sides. Being young and foolish, he blasted through the flames, relying on his knowledge of the road as he could not see anything but flames in the windshield. When he got to the Ranch, his wipers were melted onto the windshield, and the paint as burned off of one side of the car.
Patrolling the fire lines that night while the canyon burned was eerie. The flames were amazingly high as the redwoods in the canyon went up. If you did not think about what you were seeing, it was beautiful. Mom said it was frightening watching us walking the line, tiny figures dwarfed by the towering flames. All in all, we lost about seven buildings, but saved the majority of the Ranch. Tom and my sister Bobby were building a wing on their house. All of the lumber and materials had been delivered and were stacked for that winter project. All burned, but fortunately they had taken out a construction policy that covered their loss.
We, of course, had no electricity or phone service, as the lines come in from the north, the same direction as the fire. We had a lot of food in the commercial kitchen, and still had propane, so Mom put it all into an amazing chili that fed us and all of the local fire fighters for days. The Examiner had an article in the paper the day the fire hit, about our refusal to evacuate. After going into a brief history of the Ranch, the article accurately reported that Mom was last seen standing on the hill overlooking the Ranch, then the mountain exploded in a wall of flame and no one was seen to leave alive. Mom was on that hill, watching the approach to tell us when to light the back fires, and as we didn’t leave, no one left alive.
The article was a problem. My brother Ricky was in the Air Force, about to be sent to Viet Nam, and stationed in Sacramento. The radio reports about the fire were all talking about Calistoga: Tubbs Mansion burned, the town evacuated, the other fires down valley. We have had many fires closer to the Ranch, so he was concerned, but nothing like when he read the Examiner article. He went to his C.O. and showed him the article. “That is my family”. He got emergency leave to come up to see if we were alive.
We had to spend a fortune calling all of our friends and long-time guests to assure them that we, and the Ranch, were still alive. The Examiner paid us back for our telephone bills, not cheap in those days. The day after the fire, we went out with our truck to a line cut by dozers on the ridges above Chalfant and Gates roads. The fire was circling back toward Sharp road. By then, we were all exhausted and sleep deprived. I have a wonderful picture in my mind of my brother George on the running boards of the fire truck with a fire axe plying polo with the wood rats running out of the brush ahead of the fire! I don’t remember if he ever hit one, but that was the first fire line that held for us, and only because the winds were favorable.
I have been asked if I was ever frightened during the fire. The answer is no – it was all so unreal. By the time of some of the more frightening experiences, I was so exhausted, the ordeal did not seem real. It was like watching a movie of someone else. Exciting, but somehow impersonal.
Shortly after the fire, the state flew planes overhead, dropping grass seed and fertilizer on the scorched earth. The conditions that fall were perfect – gentle first rains that allowed the grass to sprout before the heavy downpours that came later. The hills looked strange – no brush, just black earth with a faint showing of green.
By spring, the grass had grown to incredible height – over my head in places. Walking through the canyon was claustrophobic. We were concerned about fire danger for next year, so we purchased a few dozen young steers to turn loose and eat down the grass. The government also sent out crews of tree planters who stayed most of the winter planting land from Calistoga to Santa Rosa.
They planted fast growing but non-native pines that are now, almost 50 years later, dying and causing dangerous fuel and attracting bark beetles, so we take the down, split them up and use them to heat in the winter months, so all is not lost.
tear and saddness
we will rebuild again….10/10/2017
Santa Roas 10/10/2017
The Fountain Grove Inn burns in the distance as the devastated Journey’s End mobile home park smolders in Santa Rosa, California, Monday morning Oct. 9, 2017. Firefighters were able to save the last row of mobile homes next to Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
David Beck, of Napa, sheds tears as he sits in his driveway after returning to find his home destroyed on Hardman Avenue during the Atlas Peak Fire in Napa, Calif. on Monday, Oct. 9, 2017. (Jose Carlos Fajardo/Bay Area News Group)
Michele Mills walks back in to her Santa Rosa, California neighborhood to see if her house is still standing, Monday, Oct. 9, 2017, in the way of the Tubbs Fire. (Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)
Patsy and Heinz Streckfuss lost their home of 37 years escaping with only the clothes on their back in the Tubbs Fire, in Santa Rosa, California, Monday, Oct. 9, 2017.(Karl Mondon/Bay Area News Group)