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The firestorm that destroyed Boyes Springs

The terrible, fire-breathing monster came out of the northeast so fast, residents barely had time to escape with the clothes on their backs. It was born in Napa County miles away, then, blown by devil winds, it moved west, growing and devouring all in its path.

When it was done, Boyes Hot Springs, Fetters Springs and Agua Caliente were gone. The year was 1923. The month, September.

The recent fires that have consumed thousands of acres in Napa and Lake counties might seem a safe distance from Sonoma Valley, but they’re not. That 1923 blaze is testimony to that fact.

History tells us that our usual cooling moisture-laden breezes from the coast shift in September and start blowing from the warmer and drier interior. They’re sometimes called “Santa Ana” winds.

Whatever the name, they bring extreme fire danger to our community, positioned as it is on and below hills thick with vegetation turned tinder dry by a long drought and hot summer.

Those winds can take a spark from a tractor or a carelessly discarded cigarette and turn it into firestorm moving faster than a man can run, destroying everything in its path. 

It was just a little thing in late September of 1923. Some workmen made a small, smoky fire miles away in Napa county to get rid of bees. The Santa Ana winds were blowing. The small fire quickly got away from them and burned southwest toward Sonoma Valley. It grew as it went, creating even more heat and wind exceeding 70 miles per hour.

A wall of flames, now a fearsome firestorm, entered our Valley near Nuns Canyon, northeast of Glen Ellen. It swept south and west chasing people from their farms and homes near Trinity Road, then Glen Ellen, then Agua Caliente, Fetters and finally Boyes Hot Springs.

The Index-Tribune reported, “The fire came down a gap between the foothills and Woodleaf Park and Boyes Springs. The whole settlement was instantly ignited. Flames broke out everywhere. With a cry of horror, people fled their homes.”

It consumed almost every building in the Springs communities, including Crane Sanitarium, the Valley’s only hospital at the time. The Boyes Springs Hotel (rebuilt in 1927 becoming the Sonoma Mission Inn), the Boyes Theatre, the post office, the grocery stores, meat markets, hardware stores, drug stores, lumber companies and countless other businesses. It even burned down the firehouse. More than 100 families lost their homes. Entire blocks were charred ruins.

“Fed by countless bungalows and cottages in Woodleaf Park and by rows of stores and the Boyes Springs Hotel, the flames leaped high in the air, jumping from one side of the road to the opposite and finally swept across the creek to Sonoma Vista, where it licked row after row of summer homes,” the I-T added.

Much of our community from Boyes Hot Springs north was gone.

Many longtime local residents and former volunteer firefighters remember the next big blaze 41 years later in September of 1964 that followed a similar path. It was equally frightening, consuming 10,000 acres and destroying many homes and other structures.

The winds from the east, clocked at more than 70 miles per hour, caused the fire to move so rapidly that it was into our communities and burning homes before we could react with sufficient force.

It has been 51 years since that second fire. Meanwhile, the raging Valley Fire burns unsettling close to county lines. The terrible winds are due to arrive any day, and we won’t be truly safe until the first big rain storms of the late fall.  Be aware and be prepared.