Northern California Forest Fires Test Mutual Aid Forces
September blazes burn over 94,000 acres. City departments fight alongside forestry crews
NORTHERN CALIFORNIA fire fighters centering in Sonoma County, received their greatest test during the week of September 20th. Initially, California’s famed Redwood Empire was threatened by a 1,300-acre fire in the Kenwood area, as well as a 100-acre fire which started near Hanley on the slopes of Mount St. Helena. Both fires started from unknown causes on Saturday, September 19, aided by a dry north wind and temperatures of over 100°.
By Monday morning, the Hanley fire, the Kenwood (now known as Nun’s Canyon), and a third blaze christened Roadside No. 43 presented a fire-suppression problem unprecedented for that area. Ultimately embracing parts of Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties, initial attack was made by units of the California Division of Forestry’s Sonoma County headquarters as well as local fire districts and departments directly affected. Later, overall control went to Division of Forestry’s District I (Northwest Coast Counties), headquartered in Santa Rosa. During the week required to control Hanley Nun’s Canyon and Roadside 43, District I also co-ordinated fire suppression measures in its 6 1/2-million acre area, totaling 94 blazes which burned 94,730 acres.
Early attempts to utilize aerial attack on the three Sonoma area fires were temporarily foiled by severe air turbulence. Later, however, a total of 29 aircraft (including helicopters) dropped 481,850 gallons of retardant on the three fires. Planes operated from three separate local airfields.
Mutual aid envoked
By noon Monday, fire apparatus from as far south as Fresno (190 miles), alerted through the State Disaster Communications net, were rolling toward the area. Included were 65 Division of Forestry trucks, as well as Civil Defense and mutual aid units totaling 237 rigs manned by 1,670 men. In addition, six SPCA Humane Society units responded to help or humanely destroy distressed domestic and wild animals.
—Wide World photo
Taking action without precedent, the San Francisco Fire Department dispatched three task forces totaling eight triple-combination pumpers and four reserve tank trucks manned by 165 men. Under the overall command of Assistant Chief Henry A. Lindecker, San Francisco units helped stop the Hanley fire at the Santa Rosa city limits. Looking a little out of place with their monitors and other “city” equipment, San Francisco’s triples performed yeoman service as tankers wherever required. One San Francisco fireman, questioned by this correspondent, said, “We worked like hell!”
At one point a desperate battle took place around the Sonoma County hospital where 11 staff doctors stood ready to evacuate over 300 patients. Military units stood by with trucks to carry the patients to previously selected temporary quarters.
In another incident, three fire fighters, running for their lives, took refuge in a boy’s club swimming pool while fire raged around them. Saved from the fire, they then succumbed to chlorine fumes released when the pool’s supply tank blew up. All three were treated for gas exposure.
Arson also raised its ugly head—most likely instigated by the excitement and wild publicity. Crews returning to a base camp after a fire fight, discovered and extinguished three spot grass fires about 3:00 a.m. on Wednesday. Sheriff’s deputies later arrested a local man who admitted setting them.
Communications play major role
Incoming CD and mutual aid units reported to Command Post I at Rincon Valley Fire Station where they received assignments to various fire camps. At Command I, radio communications emanated from a brand new State Civil Defense Communications trailer. Delivered to Division I’s headquarters only a few days before the fire and not yet completely equipped, the unit and its hastily gathered personnel did an outstanding job.
—Santa Rosa Press Democrat photo by Joe Price, Jr.
Equipped with 13 transceivers and a two-position dispatching console, the trailer-mounted rig can communicate with every fire organization in the state. Despite its deployment without practiced personnel, participating mutual aid personnel were generally loud in their praise for its effectiveness. Training operations programmed for this winter will undoubtedly improve efficiency in any future operations. The unit is available for deployment anywhere in the state.
Final control was established in Sonoma, Napa and Solano counties on September 27, with structural losses totaling 156 dwellings and over 150 farm structures and outbuildings. Over 50 of these homes were destroyed in or near the resort town of Calistoga.
—Santa Rosa Press Democrat photo by John LeBaron