Sonoma once fought downtown fire with wine
Wine used to save the Sonoma Plaza from a fire.
Sonomans fought a fire in a downtown building with wine in 1911.
Sitting in the center of the new Sonoma Fire Department museum is a remarkable piece of equipment, a "pumper" capable of spraying water on spreading fires, bought by the volunteer fire department more than a century ago.
There are no harnesses, shafts or yokes for horses, for it was to be hauled by human power. It has been beautifully maintained by volunteers conscious of its important role in the history of the city.
On the morning of Sept. 18, 1911, a small kitchen fire broke out in the cobbler's shop located in the middle of the block on First Street East opposite the Plaza. Alerted by the city's fire siren, dozens of volunteers raced to the scene. Just as they arrived, the shop's coal oil stove exploded, setting the building on fire and scattering burning embers both north and south.
Next door, the Poppe building, with a retail store on the ground floor and two apartments upstairs, caught fire. The firefighters charged upstairs and began carting out furniture, including two pianos and other belongings, which they carried across the street to the Plaza. The flames began licking up the walls, threatening the entire building.
Suddenly the wind blew southward and the flames leapt to the one-story structure between the Poppe's and an inn called the Sonoma House. Beyond that was the big brick Duhring store on the corner of East Napa Street. The volunteers threw a heavy rope around the small building, hitched it to a pair of sturdy horses, pulled it down and dragged the remnants into the street, creating a fire break.
Almost immediately, the capricious winds whipped around and headed up the block. Like a giant bellows, the fresh blast of air turned smoldering heaps of embers into full-scale blazes.
Within minutes, the fire began to consume the Bismarck Hotel, and then Cantoni's Bakery, a saloon, and two other businesses. The flames also spread to a row of shacks in the alley behind these buildings. Directly in the path of the conflagration lay the two-story Pinelli Building, a large stone edifice built by immigrant stonemason Augustino Pinelli in 1891.
A group of the Sonoma volunteer firefighters had pulled and pushed the "pumper" from its housing in the three-year-old City Hall in the Plaza, but it was only of marginal use since there was only a small supply of water to pump. A few Plaza merchants had contracted with the water company owned by the Vallejo family, which piped water from their reservoir behind the Lachrya Montis mansion, but most residents relied on private wells.
Pinelli realized that his stone building was in danger of being engulfed in flame. He also owned the old adobe Blue Wing around the corner on Spain Street which he was using to store thousands of gallons of wine. Flying bits of red-hot debris were already landing on the roof of the Blue Wing and had set fire to a cord of wood next to the adobe. In the smoke and confusion, he called out to some of the firefighters and urged them to pull the pumper to the corner along with their cart loaded with a heavyweight hose four or five hundred feet long. They unrolled the hose, hooked it up to Pinelli's wine storage tank at one end and to the pumper which was hand-operated by several muscular men.
Shortly a forceful stream of red wine was dousing the burning stack of wood and the Blue Wing's roof. By then, smoke was pouring from the windows of the Pinelli building so the fireman turned the wine spray onto its walls, over the roof and through the windows until the fire abated. Then the hose directed its vivid crimson rain onto the flames still flaring up from the red hot remains of the burned-out businesses on the northern portion of First Street East. The steaming pile of debris emitted a rich wine fragrance.
The peril to the heart of Sonoma was far from over. Swirling northerly winds had carried clouds of burning ashes onto the roofs of the Mission, the Barracks and the Toscano Hotel, igniting a flurry of rooftop blazes. Women and children joined the battle by climbing up onto the roofs with sacks and began snuffing out the fires, saving those historic buildings from destruction. Burning embers triggered a grass fire in the Plaza which fed upon some of the furniture salvaged from the apartments and businesses in the first hour of the fire.
Although the rock solid Pinelli Building had been saved, the wine-drenched interior was gutted and required total renovation. Today it is the El Paseo complex. Sonoma businesses soon began to rebuild the town's prime commercial block.
In his book, "The Sonoma Valley Story," Robert Lynch described pioneer Index-Tribune publisher and editor Harry Granice's 30-year crusade for a Sonoma municipal water system, which was still on the drawing-board that September morning in 1911.
By ironic coincidence, 79 years and one day after the 1911 fire, the Duhring Building that had been saved by the rain of wine and the fire break, caught fire. While the professionally-led volunteers fought to put out the blaze, the flames reached the paint room of owner Pinelli's Mission Hardware. The resulting spectacular explosion blew the building apart and bombarded East Napa Street with hundreds of bricks. These were carefully stacked on palettes and the building was meticulously reconstructed under the direction of Sonoma architect Reiner Keller.
Along with many relics of the Sonoma Valley Fire Department, founded in 1888, the hand pumper stands as a memorial to human energy, courage, innovation and Valley wine. The Fire Museum can be visited at the new firehouse on Second Street East. Wednesday night the City Council voted to name the Second Street Fire Station housing the museum in honor of long-time Fire Chief Al Mazza, who was so popular that Sonomans twice elected him to the city council and mayor, a fitting tribute to him and generations of Sonoma firefighters.