The fire hit the Ranch in two waves, first as a crown fire, jumping ridge top to ridge top at about 3 p.m. Before I could see it, I heard the explosions. I remember thinking, “Oh, they are dynamiting to save the Junior Ranch” (now Mayacamas Ranch), remembering what I had read about the 1906 San Francisco fire. Actually, it was just trees exploding.
When the firestorm went over, we had to get inside the lodge as it was too hot outside, but the fire jumped over us. Trees exploded, but seemed to be blown out. The wind was so strong, it was hard to see.
After a fire in the ‘30s that had almost burned down the Ranch (according to Mom, we were saved by the Calistoga Volunteer Fire Department), Dad had built the swimming pool on top of the hill above the cabins for fire protection, and connected the pool to a fire hydrant at the cabins. There were spot fires breaking out throughout the cabins after the fire storm jumped over. I opened the valve at the pool and used the water to put out the spot fires.
We had just had a delivery of hay, and the barn was open on three sides, so it caught fire as well. The only accessible gate was next to the barn. “Papa’s Boy” was my favorite horse and he was the alpha of the herd, so I got on him, got all of the horses running and we blasted by the burning barn.
Where we now have a tennis court and meeting room (which we originally built after the fire as the first home of the Mountain Volunteer Fire Department) was all open apple orchard. The wind blew all of the late apples off of the trees and the horses were quite content to stay there eating apples during the rest of the fire, only looking up at the crazed deer that would run through as the fire surrounded us.
In those days we were always looking for ways to bring in money to get through the winter when we had no guests. That spring and summer, George and I had cleared the land that is now the subdivision just before Mark West Lodge, next to Safari West. George must have had 30 cords of oak and madrone cut, spit and stacked on top of the ridge, ready to sell that winter. That wood burned for days.
At one point, I remember going into my room, thinking the building would burn. My brother Robby and I were staying that winter in Grandpa’s house. For some reason, I was worried that I would not have anything to wear to school next week, so I grabbed all of my clothes and threw them into the pool. In fact, Grandpa’s house did not burn, and when it was time to go back to school, I didn’t have anything to wear. All of my clothes had soaked for two days in a pool half-filled with ash! Robby teased me about that incident for years.
Mom was working the other side of the Ranch with garden hoses. She faced a Hobson’s Choice: two buildings were burning, the laundry and our family home. She was alone and could only save one. She reasoned that we could continue to operate without the family home, but we could not without the laundry. We had just finished bringing in all of the linen and mattresses from the cabins for the winter and everything was stored in the laundry. She saved the laundry, but the family home burned.
During World War II, Dad had built a freezer in the basement of the family home out of plywood. We had about 100 pounds of frozen shrimp in that freezer at the time of the fire. When the house burned, the shrimp boiled in the thawed ice and smelled delicious for a while. We were tempted, but didn’t try any. After a day or two, we had to take the Cat-22 and bury the stuff.
The main body of the fire hit us at about 8 p.m. By then, George and Duane and Tom Leonard were all back from Franz Valley. The Alpine neighbors dropped them off, but wouldn’t stay, as they wanted to protect their homes on the other side of the hill.
One of our longtime guests, John Karvonen, who was my age and worked that summer at the Ranch, heard about the fire on the radio. He borrowed his grandmother’s Cadillac and drove up to see if he could help out. As he came in Mountain Home Ranch Road, the road was blocked by fire burning on both sides. Being young and foolish, he blasted through the flames, relying on his knowledge of the road as he could not see anything but flames in the windshield. When he got to the Ranch, his wipers were melted onto the windshield, and the paint was burned off of one side of the car.
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Patrolling the fire lines that night while the canyon burned was eerie. The flames were amazingly high as the redwoods in the canyon went up. If you did not think about what you were seeing, it was beautiful. Mom said it was frightening watching us walking the line, tiny figures dwarfed by the towering flames.
All in all, we lost about seven buildings, but saved the majority of the Ranch. Tom and my sister Bobby were building a wing on their house. All of the lumber and materials had been delivered and were stacked for that winter project. All burned, but fortunately they had taken out a construction policy that covered their loss.
We, of course, had no electricity or phone service, since the lines came in from the north, the same direction as the fire. We had a lot of food in the commercial kitchen, and still had propane, so Mom put it all into an amazing chili that fed us and all of the local firefighters for days.
The Examiner had an article in the paper the day the fire hit, about our refusal to evacuate. After going into a brief history of the Ranch, the article accurately reported that Mom was last seen standing on the hill overlooking the Ranch, then the mountain exploded in a wall of flame and no one was seen to leave alive.
Mom was on that hill, watching the approach to tell us when to light the back fires, and as we didn’t leave, no one left alive. The article was a problem. My brother Ricky was in the Air Force, about to be sent to Vietnam, and stationed in Sacramento. The radio reports about the fire were all talking about Calistoga: Tubbs Mansion burned, the town evacuated, the other fires down valley. We have had many fires closer to the Ranch, so he was concerned, but nothing like when he read the Examiner article.
He went to his commanding officer and showed him the article. He said, “That is my family.” He got emergency leave to come up to see if we were alive. We had to spend a fortune calling all of our friends and longtime guests to assure them that we, and the Ranch, were still alive. The Examiner paid us back for our telephone bills, not cheap in those days.
The day after the fire, we went out with our truck to a line cut by dozers on the ridges above Chalfant and Gates roads. The fire was circling back toward Sharp Road. By then, we were all exhausted and sleep-deprived. I have a wonderful picture in my mind of my brother George on the running boards of the fire truck with a fire axe playing polo with the wood rats running out of the brush ahead of the fire! I don’t remember if he ever hit one, but that was the first fire line that held for us, and only because the winds were favorable.
I have been asked if I was ever frightened during the fire. The answer is no — it was all so unreal. By the time of some of the more frightening experiences, I was so exhausted, the ordeal did not seem real. It was like watching a movie of someone else. Exciting, but somehow impersonal.
Shortly after the fire, the state flew planes overhead, dropping grass seed and fertilizer on the scorched earth. The conditions that fall were perfect — gentle first rains that allowed the grass to sprout before the heavy downpours that came later. The hills looked strange — no brush, just black earth with a faint showing of green.
By spring, the grass had grown to incredible height — over my head in places. Walking through the canyon was claustrophobic. We were concerned about fire danger for the next year, so we purchased a few dozen young steers to turn loose and eat down the grass.
The government also sent out crews of tree planters who stayed most of the winter planting land from Calistoga to Santa Rosa. They planted fast-growing but non-native pines that are now, almost 50 years later, dying and causing dangerous fuel and attracting bark beetles, so we take them down, split them up and use them to heat in the winter months, so all is not lost.