1924 forest fires raged through the River Canyon | SierraSun.com

1924 forest fires raged through the River Canyon

Courtesy of Truckee Donner Historical SocietSmoke billows over Hirschdale in the summer of 1924, one of the most volatile forest fire seasons in the Sierra Nevada.

It seemed that by the end of July of 1924 the whole West was on fire. In the Northern Sierra, huge fires had already burned over 100,000 acres and dozens of ranches and logging camps. The Truckee River Canyon had already had two large fires and the worst was yet to come.With these huge fires making headlines, federal emergency fire funding was secured and men from all over the West were hired and equipped, forming the start of a small army of experienced firefighters. These fires were becoming very dangerous and there were reports of missing men in the mountains.The Forest Service responded to the conditions by closing down access to huge areas of the Sierra, chasing out fishermen, campers, miners, ranchers and sheep herders. The losses in timber alone had mounted well into the millions of dollars. Lumber mills and factories were closed down as the men were sent off to save the forest they depended on. The environmental damage from these crown fires was so great that scars from these fires are still visible in Sierra forests today.The wind rose on July 29 and the embers of the past Union Mills fire that had not been mopped up flared to life. It stretched its orange tentacles down the Truckee River Canyon to again threaten the paper mill town of Floriston. Five hundred men from Floriston, Truckee and Reno responded to the call. The fire blew across the river and down both sides of the steep canyon. The paper mill waste flume burned, causing about $5,000 damage.

The forested hillsides burned intensely, but the battle was down by the river, where crews tried to protect the Southern Pacific Railroad, the Farad power plant, supply flume, and the power lines running through the Canyon. The Transcontinental Bell Telephone line also ran along the river and was threatened for a time but was saved by more heroics from the phone company crews.There were many heroic efforts to fight this blaze. One of the paper mill superintendents, Karl Rosel, was leading a crew in saving a portion of Floriston when he saw a large boulder, freed from its anchor in brush by the fire, crashing down the mountain. The first to see the boulder, he shouted to his crew to take cover behind trees, and only when they were safe did he jump to safety. Unfortunately by protecting his men he sacrificed his own. The rolling juggernaut bounced right on top of Rosel, crushing the life out of him.The battle for the Farad power plant was a fierce one, as the men were backed up against the wall, battling both flames and crashing boulders. Time and time again power poles and flume timbers caught on fire, but the brave firefighters quelled the flames. Once past Farad the wind blew the fire further downstream, threatening the railroad stop of Mystic, and on up the canyons and ridges on both sides of the river.For a few days the winds calmed down and it looked like the fire could be contained, but men were drawn off the lines to fight new outbreaks of flames in Plumas and Lassen counties, and the area was again covered by smoke from fires near Foresthill. Ash from several fires fell in the streets of Reno.On Aug. 6 the Truckee River Canyon fire blew up again. Once again, the men from the Floriston Paper Mill closed the mill down and picked up fire tools instead. The SP Railroad stopped all of its trains and put fire trains into service on the blaze to save the railroad. Even tramps riding the rails were pressed into service to fight the flames.On Aug. 8, Truckees attention was diverted from the miles-high column of smoke to the east and focused on Truckee itself. Six houses were destroyed on Church Street, and the SP fire train raced back to town just in time to save the rail yards from the wind-blown inferno.

During the daylight the wind pushed the fires down the canyons toward the river, then after it died down in the night, it roared back up the canyons into the timber. All kinds of wildlife fled the infernos. Hundreds of deer were killed; coyotes formed packs and raced from hill to hill to escape the flames. Birds flew in terror, and small animals ran in every direction or froze in fear and were trapped.Lake Tahoe, fire free up to now, made the headlines on Aug. 10 as a new 6,000-acre forest fire broke out southeast of Incline, along the route of the lakeshore highway under construction. Over 100 men were drafted to protect the flume from Marlette Lake that provided the water supply to Virginia City. Again heroic efforts in the face of deadly danger saved most of the flume from destruction.By Aug. 12, the Floriston fire had moved downstream on fresh zephyrs, and now took out poles of both power and telephone companies, knocking Reno out of power and phone service. Even as the stumps smoldered, new poles and wires were put up to restore the critical services.The folks of Verdi were becoming increasingly nervous as the fires spread out and swept up and down ridges above the town, torching forests with 150-foot high flames. By Aug. 13, outlying buildings around Verdi were going up in flames, spreading embers over the lumber town. At night the glare from the fires on both Crystal Peak to the west, and in Hunter Creek to the south, lit the night sky up all the way into Reno.Verdi residents huddled in fear with their cars and wagons fully loaded, pointed toward Reno, and the men chopped grass and brush from around their homes. Spot fires jumped north toward Dog Valley and the Victory Highway was closed for a few days as the flames roared on by to Peavine Peak. Exhausted firefighters now struggled to keep the flames from moving back to the west over the Verdi Range and burning back into the Stampede Valley.By Aug. 16 the fire had a new fire boss. J.H. Price, chief logging engineer for the U.S. Forest Service took charge. Even with the new help, the fire still raged on, burning a portion of the Fleish flume and dam right in the river itself. The inferno burned along Verdi Range and even took out the Bears Head, a prominent mountain top feature on Granite Peak that was created by an unusual combination of rocks and tree openings. The Bears Head was visible most of the winter when snow filled the gaps in the trees, but with the trees burned to a crisp, the bear was gone too.On Aug. 18, the fire was starting to calm down, allowing for huge backfires to be set, in hopes of containing the blazes to Granite Peak and Hunter Creek. Forest Service officials Price, Bigelow and Snider felt a sense of relief and even started releasing some of the exhausted volunteers. A line of thunderstorms moved up from the south with monsoon moisture that rained on many parts of Nevada and the Sierra, but none fell within 30 miles of Reno or at Tahoe.On Aug. 23, a new fire broke out near the Hobart Mills logging camps south of Sierraville, and another threatened the railroad town of Blue Canyon, but these fires of several hundred acres were easier to control with the recent moisture and cooler temperatures. The skies began to return to blue, and residents began to return and assess the damage. During the fire season of 1924, almost the whole stretch of the Truckee River watershed from above Boca to Verdi burned in one fire or another. Another larger fire burned through much of the same area and into new forests on Mt. Rose during the 1926 fire season, another bad one for the West. The Martis Fire in 2001 burned in the same area, under the same weather conditions.

For most of September the weather maintained an eerie calm, but during the first days of fall the winds returned with a vengeance and so did the fire demon. On Sept. 22, a forest fire broke out in the Carson Range above Washoe Valley. It blew up and threatened the Virginia City flume again, and burned up toward the summit of Mt Rose. When the winds quit, the volunteer forces stamped out the flames with shovels and farm tools.The Sierra Nevada Wood & Lumber Company had a lightning fire start near its logging Camp 11 near Sierraville and burn 500,000 board feet of logs decked and ready to load on the railroad. It also burned a 300-foot-long railroad trestle and consumed hundreds of acres before 250 loggers-turned-firefighters once again conquered wildfire. Several other smaller brush fires, again started by highway construction crews, broke out near Boca, keeping the SP fire trains busy protecting the tracks.On Sept. 30 a fire broke out on the south side of Donner Lake and burned up to the railroad tracks on a half-mile front. The Southern Pacific sent three fire trains and hundreds of men, including contract workers building Tunnel 41 under Mt. Judah. Transcontinental passenger service and all freight trains were delayed for over a day while the blaze roared along the tracks, scorching several snowsheds and the Tunnel 13 portal. After two days, the railroad firefighters doused the last embers.On Oct. 6, the heavens let loose with their long pent-up moisture and the mountain people rejoiced as a series of fall storms arrived that quenched the last of the smoldering embers on hundreds of fires that occurred in the Northern Sierra. By Oct. 10, a foot of snow coated the Sierra crest, and winter was on its way.The dry period lasted through the 1920s and mid 1930s when wetter winters returned and reduced the forest fire hazard for a time. But for several decades people spoke fearfully of the 1924 Sierra fire season.Gordon Richards is the historian for the Truckee Donner Historical Society. Please visit the Truckee Donner Historical Society Web site at http://truckeehistory.tripod.com. Past articles by Gordon Richards are available at Sierra Sun. Com in the archives. The e-mail address is tdhs@inreach.com.

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