On Friday evening, September 19, 1964, Calistoga had a football game, I believe at Cloverdale, and we were on the school bus heading up the old Petrified Forest Road and we could see the fire on Mt. St. Helena.
I was sitting with Jack LeStrange, who lived near the fire area, so we were concerned, but it didn’t look that bad. I believe that Calistoga won the game. The next day the strong north Foehn winds picked up, but I had forgotten about the fire until we received a call from Alpine Volunteer Fire Department that we were sending out trucks as Calistoga was being evacuated.
We had a truck, an old Dodge Powerwagon, here at the Ranch under the auspices of Alpine, and I went with the truck, along with my brother George and my step-father Duane, Roy Wycoff, Pete Saltzgaver, and I believe my brother-in-law Tom Leonard. We went first up Bennett Lane doing structure protection on a house back up in the hills.
CDF was running a big dozer around us, by the Calistoga Reservoir, and was well on the way of connecting to protect that flank. However, the dozer was an old one with cables to work the blade rather than hydraulics, and a cable broke, so he could only back up the same way he’d come. When he got to where we were, he told us to evacuate, as the fire was now going to flank us.
I was on the roof with a hose, and George heard dogs barking inside the house, so he broke open the door and let out a couple of very excited Dobermans, who joined us on the truck. Just before evacuating, Duane noticed that the large chicken coop had a new roof on one end and a padlock on the door — clearly a tool shed. He and George broke down the door to see if they could salvage tools before the fire hit.
Inside were tools, which they began to fling out into the vineyard, but on the back wall they found a 50-gallon gasoline tank, and under it a case of dynamite with a box of dynamite caps on top. We rolled the gasoline tank through the wall and put the dynamite caps in an incinerator outside. It was then that I learned that dynamite without something to set it off was not particularly dangerous in a fire, or so I was told. We did not stick around to find out.
We next went to the other side of Highway 128, where we were joined by a truck from San Francisco. At that time, volunteer “uniform” consisted of blue jeans and a work shirt — no Nomex for us! The SF firemen were in full black turnouts in the 100-degree weather. I remember being amazed that they could run in all that gear. I remember that one of them remarked as the fire roared past that they could put the damn thing out if it would just stay put for a second.
Later that day, I was equipped with a five-gallon backpack with a hand pump and was working with John Earls patrolling a fire line we had made around a cabin in the woods. We would take turns using our water and then returning to the truck for a refill. While I was refilling my pack, I saw the fire jump the line and I ran up to warn Earls. He, of course, also saw the jump, and being older and wiser, ran back to the truck. I, however, was trapped.
I started running across an open field with knee-high dried grass, with a pack on, jumping a barbed wire fence that I would not have dreamed of jumping under normal circumstances. A truck from Idaho spotted me and drove into the field. One of the firefighters reached down and pulled me in and we drove through the flames into the “black”.
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I was told that if I was ever in that situation again, I should hold my breath and run through the flames as they did with the truck. I promised that I would remember that next time! Being 17, it never occurred to me that other people might be worried about me. All I could think of was that the fire was heading directly for the Ranch, and that if we could not hold a line here, there was no way we were going to stop it in Franz Valley, so I just wanted to get back to the Ranch.
I tried to get the Idaho truck to take me there, but they could not go anywhere without orders, and as their radios were the old crystal variety that could not be tuned to our frequencies, they had to wait for orders in person.
I did get a lift from someone who lived locally — I do not remember who — but only to the end of the road. No one in their right mind would come in Mountain Home Ranch Road.
I ran into the Ranch from there, well ahead of the fire. Our Alpine truck with George and Duane went into Franz Valley, where they successfully saved the old schoolhouse where mom had attended elementary school.
Mom was watching the fire from the top of the hill when she saw me running home. She’d received a call from Mr. Mazzola, my football coach, who said that I was missing in action, but that they were organizing a search party out of the football team to look for me. “No,” she said, “I see him running home!”
I took our old Cat-22 with a dozer to open up some fire trails while waiting for the fire to hit us. As the fire approached, Grandpa, who was in his 90s, started having chest pains.
My sister Judy, who was at the Ranch visiting, was nine months pregnant and had different pains. She drove Grandpa to the hospital in her Volkswagen Beetle just before the fire hit. Grandpa was fine, and Judy gave birth to my niece the day of the fire.
“The fire hit the Ranch in two waves ... ” See next week’s Calistogan for Fouts’ account of his family’s battle to save Mountain Home Ranch.