As the Napa County summers wear on, the corresponding fire seasons intensify. Those fires and others, as well as firefighting-related stories, were top articles found in past Napa County newspapers.
In July 1940, the Napa Daily Journal reported the contrasts between the 1939 and 1940 wildland fire statistics from Jan. 1 to June 30 of each year. In 1940 there were over three times as many Napa County forest and grass fires than in 1939.
According to the California Department of Resources, 1940 recorded 46 fires burning 881 Napa County acres. In 1939, there had been only 14 fires burning just 12 Napa County acres.
The Journal also noted the local forestry division received a new fire truck and pumper to aid in its firefighting efforts.
As for structural fires, those many incidents differed substantially in intensity and outcome. For example, in early 1941 Napa’s iconic Opera House was the scene of a fire. Fortunately, the blaze was contained within a beauty salon located on its first floor.
In contrast, a June 1890 fire was catastrophic for a St. Helena property owner. Contributing to the complete destruction of Thomas Greer’s barn and its contents was “The Main street bridge (being) blockaded,” requiring the firefighters to take “a detour of nearly a half mile,” the Napa Register reported. By the time they had arrived, the barn and its contents were fully engulfed in flames. All they could do was watch the inferno of unknown origin burn.
In addition to the barn, Greer lost a wagon, carriage, two-wheeled cart and about a half-ton of hay and feed. Fortunately, all of his livestock was safe. His son, Thomas Greer Jr., lost all of his possessions — household goods, furniture and carpentry tools — stored in his father’s ill-fated barn. Luckily, Greer Sr. had a $600 insurance policy on the barn and its contents.
Printed on the same page of the June 1890 Napa Register was an article about testing the firefighting equipment of Napa’s volunteer firefighting companies. The Pioneers Company brought their hand pump out to the Division street wharf. The Alert Company’s hoses and the Pioneers’ carts were connected to the pump engine. The Register added, “The boys were then put to work.”
Unfortunately, the first test was unsatisfactory because the engine had been allowed to sit idle for too long. The Register continued, “Soon, however, a single stream was started and was thrown about 60 feet into the air, demonstrating the fact that with a willing corps of worker the ‘old stand-by’ (as the engine is by some characterized) is capable of doing excellent work.” The Register added, “The labor of pumping the water is, however, very severe.”
The Napa volunteer firefighting companies were replaced with city-hired crews in the 1900s. Napa city continued to make strides toward providing Napans with state-of-the-art firefighting. For instance, in early 1926, the council approved the proposal for a new fire station.
According to the Journal, local architect C.L. Hunt promised the council and Napa Mayor Charles E. Trower completed fire station plans in a week. The Journal was of the opinion its construction would begin shortly thereafter. The proposed site for the 1926 fire station is currently occupied by Napa’s city hall.
But there was a hitch — financing the proposed new fire department headquarters. The Journal added, “However, the council believes that this obstacle will be overcome without placing any additional burdens on the taxpayers.”
As illustrated by these accounts, the outcomes of local fires varied greatly while Napa County firefighters and politicians worked diligently to protect their communities.