1924 was the summer of endless fires
August 28, 2007
Forest fires have always been a part of the Sierra Nevada. Climate change and man’s hand on the land have changed the nature of fire in the forests. The late 1800s up to the 1920s was a time of wetter winters and cooler summers, and forests that still had many low-intensity fires.
The turning point came in the 1920s when drought struck the West. In the Truckee-Tahoe area, dense new-growth forests, now containing more white fir than pine, had grown after extensive logging of the 1800s and could now fuel hotter, larger fires.
The winter of 1923-24 was a very dry one with no more than three feet of snow on Donner Summit in early March. March and April had deep powder storms that stacked up snow on the Sierra Crest, but had little moisture for the Truckee River Basin. These storms did not leave a flake for Reno, which went six months without any precipitation.
The early 1920s saw a startling increase in large wildfires in California, including large ones on the west slope of the Sierra that destroyed whole watersheds of old growth forests. The year 1923 was one of fire terror in the Coastal Ranges. Fire raged through neighborhoods of Oakland and Berkeley, burning hundreds of homes. All up and down California dry forests and ranges went up in smoke and flames.
Since forest fires had rarely done much damage or caused many deaths, fire suppression was still a local problem, and there were few full-time fire crews. The Truckee-Tahoe area had only a handful of US Forest Service Rangers, led by Hobart Snider. When fires occurred, logging crews were hired to suppress them, and in big fires men were hired off the streets of Truckee and Reno.
The dry weather arrived in May and the first sign of trouble was a brush fire of 600 acres along the Truckee River near Polaris. It was started by a highway construction crew building the Victory Highway down the Truckee River Canyon from Truckee to Verdi. Fires also broke out on the Nevada side of Mt. Rose, and in the Sierra Valley.
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Fire in forests is really not a big deal by itself, as a slow burning, low-intensity fire is actually beneficial for the trees, reducing the competing young trees and releasing nutrients for the roots to absorb. The clearings grow grasses, herbs and shrubs that feed more wildlife than the trees above them do. On a calm, cool day the fires creep along the ground, causing no great damage.
The mountain weather dynamics of the Sierra create a downslope wind on the east slope that fuels huge devastating fires. It is wind that creates fire storm conditions and spreads the fires faster than a man can run. Historically known as “Washoe Zephyrs,” these winds blast over the Sierra Nevada and through the one gap in the Carson Range, the Truckee River Canyon.
The wind tunnel-effect blows fires sideways into huge infernos in a heartbeat. The fires always started small, and most were manmade. Smokers, hunters, loggers, campers, highway construction crews, and especially the horde of traveling men who hopped freight trains to travel from job to job along the railroad tracks across the West, caused these devastating wildfires.
On June 3, the first dangerous fire broke out upwind from the town of Floriston, blown about the twisting canyon by high winds. The Floriston Paper Mill closed down and sent 300 men out to fight the flames that roared to within 1,000 feet of the paper mill and town. Men from Truckee and Reno were hired to dig firebreaks around the fire, but since other fires had broken out in the Sierra Valley, volunteer firefighters were hard to find.
With hard work, the flames were diverted around the town just as the wind shifted and calmed down. The fire was soon contained, but since the paper mill was closed, the men were hurried back to work without any mopping up.
On June 15, strong winds again descended on the Sierra and Nevada. New fires broke out around Truckee and Boca, and the Floriston fire flared anew, but were put out quickly before the gale could carry them away. Large forest fires started in Hunter Creek and Galena Creek above the Truckee Meadows. Reno was almost surrounded by fire, and smoke choked those inside or out.
These fires calmed down when the wind quit, but on June 20 a new fire broke out on the east side of Slide Mountain, quickly enlarging to a four-mile-wide fire front. The Zephyr blew the fire down into Washoe Valley, but was put out by volunteers and a few Truckee District forest rangers before any ranches burned. Firefighters were almost trapped and burned by the flames, but their long legs outran the fast flames. The Forest Service was already out of money and Snider had all of his rangers out leading efforts to fight dozens of fires.
The Forest Service had the responsibility for fighting forest fires in the Sierra, but not the funding or the organization capable of dealing with these monster fires that were plaguing California. One thing Tahoe Forest Supervisor L.P. Bigelow did have was a fire lookout system. In 1924 Daisy Parker manned the Sardine Peak Lookout, looking down on the Sierra Valley and Truckee River basin. When smoke was spotted she plotted the location and telephoned it in the ranger station at Sierraville.
In 1924 Daisy and her two daughters saw a lot of smoke and at times lived in a cloud of smoke. By mid-July over 600 large forest fires would be burning throughout the West.
On June 25, the wind started howling over Truckee, and any spark could create an inferno. The lodge of the San Francisco Flycasters Club, located at Union Mills along the Truckee River, between Truckee and Boca, caught fire. Burning embers from the building caught nearby brush on fire, sparking a monster of a blaze. The wind blew the flames through dry brush and pine forest, moving east down the Truckee River toward Boca.
The Flycaster’s caretaker, Hildebrand Ross, suffered severe burns in fighting the fire and trying to save valuables from the building, and died a day later. The lodge and all of the outbuildings of the fishing club burned to the ground. The forest fire quickly spread east through Union Valley and toward Juniper Creek on a strong zephyr.
The fire also burned along the river, burning through the remains of old ice houses and lumber yards at Prosser Creek and Pacific and bore down on Boca. The Southern Pacific sent its fire trains to Boca to successfully protect the depot and ice houses there. The trains also patrolled the tracks and effectively kept the flames along the south side of the river. The wind died down and the 300-man fire crew from Truckee and Hobart Mills was able to surround the blaze that burned about 4,000 acres of brush and young trees.
The 25-mile long, hand-dug fireline was the longest ever built in the Truckee-Tahoe area. Since many of the men were employees at Hobart Mills, as soon as the flames died down, they left the fire lines and went back to work, leaving only a handful of men to mop up the blaze. As long as the wind remained calm the fire wouldn’t spread.
The Sierra Valley town of Sattley was almost wiped out in early July when a wind-fueled fire raged in the forests just to the west. Dry forests helped spread the raging fire, but the ranching town was saved by lighting a backfire at the edge of town as the winds died down for the evening. Several outlying ranches burned and 400 sheep were unable to outrun the flames. Men from Truckee and Hobart Mills, weary from the Union Mills fire, rushed to the scene to aid their northern neighbors.
The second day flames roared out into the dry grasslands of the valley and consumed more ranches and barns. The winds died down after eight days and the 400-man firefighting force contained the 3,000-acre blaze. Film of this blaze was taken for a Hollywood movie scene starring Tom Mix.
Throughout July, Lake Tahoe and Truckee looked like the fog-bound Central Valley, so dense was smoke from a bigger forest fire burning over 40,000 thousand acres in the Middle Fork of the American River, just west of Lake Tahoe. Men from the Sattley fire were rushed to this new threat, and it was feared the fire would burn all the way to Lake Tahoe.
Susanville was threatened for a few days by a fire that burned up the edge of town: one of a dozen large blazes in Lassen and Plumas Counties. Other forest fires destroyed miles of logging railroad, logging equipment and forced hundreds of men to flee for their lives.
But if July was hot, August was even hotter. More fires were still to come and more lives were in danger.