Musings of a Sonoma son: 50th anniversary of Springs fire

In the fall of 1964, a wind-blown spark from a power line ignited some tinder-dry brush on Nelligan Road between Glen Ellen and Kenwood. Then hot Santa-Ana type winds caused that little spark to explode into a raging brush, timber and grass fire that consumed 19 homes and 10,000 acres from Glen Ellen to Boyes Hot Springs over the next two days.

It took 700 firefighters with more than 75 pieces of equipment, plus aerial tanker bombers, to stop the fire before it consumed all of the Springs, as the previous big fire (of 1923) had done.

These terrible blazes visit our lovely vale infrequently (about every 40 to 50 years), and when they do, we are every bit as vulnerable as the other parts of California that we see ablaze on television’s nightly news.

The fires that have or are consuming forests, brush and homes this fall, can spread rapidly when pushed by the hot dry offshore winds that can gust up to 80 mph.

That’s exactly what happened in the Sonoma Valley fire of 1964.

The devil winds kicked up shortly after midnight on the morning of Sept. 21, starting at least three fires, two on the west side of the Valley and one on the east.

The two west-side blazes were brought under control, while the third off Nelligan Road (Nun’s Canyon) appeared to be near control. But then the wind picked up again and the fire raced in several different directions threatening a host of local ranches south and west, including the Weise Ranch (now Atwood), Beltane Ranch, and even causing the evacuation of Dunbar School.

Fire crews from virtually every department in the Valley and from agencies all over the region responded, putting themselves in harm’s way so they could protect hillside homes as the flames leaped across canyons and roads.

Many residents could be seen in their yards and on their rooftops, hoses in hand, attempting to keep their roofs and walls damp enough to prevent ignition by the red-hot hail of sparks that ignited, with the efficiency of a blowtorch, every burnable object in their path.

While the blaze burned into to residential areas near Central Avenue in the Springs, most homes were spared, some immediately next to others that were totally consumed. It was amazing that nobody was killed or seriously injured.

Virtually everyone involved agreed it could have been a lot worse were it not for the many brave firefighters and citizens who stood with them.

Still, not since 1923, had a wildfire done as much damage to our community as that fire of 1964.The worse news is that unless we have early rains this season, the danger of these windblown disasters occurring lasts well into November.

When I got home from Vietnam in 1969, I served as a volunteer fireman for the City of Sonoma for 12 years. Only two or three times did I see what high winds could do to even a small brush fire. It was enough.

I don’t exaggerate when I say that fighting such fires is like trying to extinguish a blowtorch with a water pistol.

It is probably too late to suggest this, but every resident, particularly those who live on or near brushy hillsides should take every measure they can to remove as much combustible materials from around their homes and other valued property as possible. There has to be space, lots of it, between you and what can burn to have any chance of saving your home if those devil’s blown again, and most certainly they will.???

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