Friday, October 13, 2017

Blast From the Past: Bad Memories

I seldom go off topic, but I have a personal story to tell which I think is relevant, so bear with me.  It was September 19, 1964.  I was 8 years old and had just started 3'rd grade.   We lived in a small house on 3 acres on a hill on the outskirts of a tiny college town, Angwin, in the mountains above St Helena in Napa County.  My dad taught chemistry at the small faith-based college there.  I was still only vaguely aware that San Francisco had a professional baseball team called the Giants and a famous player named Willie Mays.  As a kid, I used to worry about a lot of things that didn't seem to bother other kids.  One of them was wildfire.  There were always lots of them in the summers but they were usually small and only rarely burned houses.  I had seen pictures of fires "topping out" in pine forests and we had a lot of pine trees up on the mountain.  It just seemed to me a matter of time before a fire got going in the forest, caught a gust of wind and burned down the whole mountain!

There was an airstrip on the mountain behind the college.  Every summer they would install a tank for mixing fire retardant and bring in 3 small biplanes to deliver it to the fires in the local area.  When I see DC 10's dropping long strips of retardant nowadays, it's almost laughable to remember how small and pathetic those little biplanes were, but I felt safer with them around.

That day, the weather was unusually hot and dry.  As evening approached, a breeze started to rustle the trees, but it was not a cool ocean breeze like we had on most days.  It was a warm, dry breeze.  The biplanes had been flying to the north all day but I had not seen any smoke.  I recall walking around our property as the sun was setting and seeing a column of smoke directly to the north.  I remember wishing the biplanes could fly at night.  It seemed to be a fair distance away and the fire sirens did not go off, so even though the thought of going to bed with a wildfire burning made me a bit uneasy, I wasn't much more worried than I ever was.  I vaguely recall waking up a couple of times during the night and hearing the wind blowing pretty hard, but still no sirens.

When I awoke the next morning, it seemed like all hell had broken loose, and quite literally.  The wind was howling so hard, it stripped the leaves off the liquid amber tree in our yard leaving the stems attached to the tree!  There was a wall of smoke to the north blowing directly west.  My mother made a some phone calls and turned on the radio.  The fire had started the day before near the base of Mt St Helena.  The fire authorities thought they had it under control, but it had flared up in the evening.  That was the smoke I saw before I went to bed.  Driven by that hellacious wind, the fire burned right through Calistoga to the outskirts of Santa Rosa in one night.  I had a few classmates from school who commute up from Calistoga and I learned they had evacuated with only enough time to grab a few clothes.  Of course, the biplanes were of no use as they could not fly in that kind of wind.  They were pathetically way too small for that job anyway.

The winds gradually died down but the offshore flow remained for several days.  It seemed like a month!  The south flank of the fire kept advancing toward Angwin.  At one point, we could see the flames from our property.  Calls went out for volunteers from the community to help out on the fire lines.  My dad went for a night shift.  I was so scared, but I was already knew how to use an ax to chop wood and I didn't see why I couldn't go too!  That was a long night.  I was afraid if the wind shifted back to a onshore flow, it would blow the fire right at us, but my dad assured me that an ocean flow would bring cooler, wetter air which would help suppress the fire.  He was right. One morning we woke up to fog and the fire was essentially out.

As you can probably tell, I still have a touch of PTSD from that experience.  I did not know that fire had a name until I researched it on the internet after the Middletown fire and I found some 50 year anniversary stories from the Napa Register.  It was the Hanley Fire.  Look it up.  It must have followed an eerily similar path as the current fire that burned from Calistoga to Santa Rosa.

Any readers here remember the Hanley Fire of 1964?


  1. No need to ask me to "bear with you" - your story was gripping. I live in Connecticut, and we have 1 of the 3 problems my friends in northern California seem to have: Trees that grow tremendously (enough to knock down above-ground power lines). Here in CT, we seldom have the 2 other problems you get - high/dry winds, and warm temps. In CT, we got hit with very high winds when Hurricane Sandy came near us (not much rain, though) in 2012, and many trees came down, taking power lines with them. We lost power in my area for a week.

    However, we do not get the dry weather often, as you do in NorCal. And the winds come only once in a great while. During times like these, what you folks have to handle is very difficult. I will say a prayer for all the people in harm's way.

    God Bless...

  2. Too young to remember the Hanley fire. My brother is in the middle of this current mess. He lives in one of the 'voluntary evacuation zones' in Mendocino County though it looks like the fire won't be getting to him thanks to the windshift that's blow back into the burned area.

    The only thing of real note on a personal basis, beyond my brother and his family being threatened for a while, was the house I lived in as a teenager, back in the '70s burned down.