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Wildfire History in Marin County

September 17, 1923

Wildfire Burns From Novato to Bolinas

From the Sausalito News, Volume XXXVIII, Number 38, September 22, 1923

"The fire started Sunday from smouldering embers fanned by a heavy gale, which spread rapidly and was soon beyond control of the fighters. The embers were left from the fire that was put out after a hard fight, Wednesday, Sept. 12th. The heavy gale whipped it into huge flames that swept down towards Lucas Valley and endangered the county farm. Here, fire fighters congregated and after a long and arduous struggle diverted the fire through the Lucas Valley and saved the [County] farm.

The fire then went through the valley to Woodacre, burning the Hill, Bulltail, Lucchini and Dias ranches. At Woodacre, only five houses out of thirty-five were left standing. All day Monday the fire raged from Woodacre down to the rear of the Sleepy Hollow ranch.

headline copy orig

Citizens of the county, students of the Tamalpais Union High School and the San Rafael High School and detachments of soldiers from the Presidio and Fort McDowell were called in to save Fairfax. When the fire reached White’s hill thirty girl patients of the Arequipa Sanitarium were rushed to the Fairfax Community House where they spent Monday night.  Monday night the fire was in the Cascades, about a mile and a half from Fairfax, but after hours of hard fighting and backfiring it was halted in the Cascades.

It then started going over the Fairfax ridge and the Bolinas ridge burning everything in its way. Wednesday morning the fire was considered to be under control and the soldiers from Ft. McDowell were sent back. The fire in Lucas Valley around San Geronimo, Lagunitas and Forest Knolls was well under control Wednesday night. 

The buildings on the Sleepy Hollow ranch were saved, as well as the buildings on the Bodkin, Pacheco, Lafranchi, Bothin and Dickson ranches. One hundred boys from the San Rafael high school saved the Sleepy Hollow ranch. The traffic officers of the county did excellent work on the roads leading to the fires in the White’s hill district on Monday night. Chief Wessell and Officers Gallaway, Hartwell, Thwing and Constable Nick Yeager kept the roads clear and also assisted in carrying the Arequipa patients to Fairfax.

When the fire was raging on the Bolinas ridge Monday night fifty men from Bolinas headed by men from the United States Life Saving Station went to the ridge and fought fire. Fire Warden Edwin B. Gardner did splendid work in directing the fire fighters. Deputy Fire Warden George Collamore, who was overcome while fighting the fire at Woodacre, is up and around again. At 3 a. m. Wednesday a rootburned tree falling across the concrete 4-foot water main which carries the water supply to all the cities and towns of central Marin, smashed the main, causing a water shortage for several hours. It was repaired by noon Wednesday."

Fire District Report - Newspaper Clipping - 1918July 2, 1929 - The Great Mill Valley Fire

It was a hot day in Mill Valley. 35-mph winds wereblowing from the east. In the cool parlor of the great house, identical twin sisters were chatting after lunch. Ruth White, Mrs. Ralston White, was entertaining her sister Dorothy Symmes, who had just arrived from New York with her two children, Larry, 12, and Jean, 10, for their annual summer visit.

Suddenly the gardener, Alfons Haapa, ran into the room. "There's a fire on the mountain! We have to bury the dynamite," he said. The dynamite was used for blowing up tree stumps. Ruth ran out with Alfons, telling her sister, Please phone the fire department."

From his East Peak lookout, veteran fire lookout Hugo Legler spotted smoke at 2 p.m. coming from the area near the "Garden of Allah" (now the Ralston White Retreat Center) and the railroad grade in Mill Valley.

Clinton Thoney had been appointed Mill Valley fire chief two days before, on July first. He was at lunch when news of the fire was relayed to him. He was faced with the problem of sounding the proper alarm-- a bell if the fire was outside the city limits, or the siren forfires within the city limits. The phone call from Dorothy Symmes convinced him that the fire was within the city boundaries, and he sounded the siren to alert all volunteers.

Larry Symmes was given a hose by Alfons Haapa and told to keep a stream of water on the garage to keep it from burning. When firefighters arrived, they found the fire behind the main house and proceeded to extinguish it, using water from the swimming pool. They quickly ran out of water. The hydrant system had been pumped dry in minutes.

The warm breeze soon turned the fire into a "firestorm" and blew theflames down the mountain. Moving fast toward Summit Ave, it threatened to devour all in its path. Middle Ridge was evacuated. Fingers of fire burned down toward Throckmorton and Cascade Canyon. The town center
resembled a refugee camp.

Miss Nora Evans was giving a party in her Ralston Avenue home when theysaw smoke from near the Garden of Allah. They went to the house, where they found a very frightened child, Jean Symmes (later Mrs. Jack Barnard, Mill Valley's first female mayor). They took the child back with them out of the sight of the fire. Jean's mother called them and persuaded them to evacuate. They drove off to safety at the Alta Mira Hotel in Sausalito. Returning the next day, they found their house had been reduced to ashes.

One motorist fleeing the fire down Summit lost control of his car. It crashed and burned, setting fire to five houses before it burned itself into the main fire.

The engineer on the mountain train coming toward town had to keep thebrakes on, as the tracks were made slippery by hundreds of snakes fleeing the flames.

By 9:30 p.m. the fire was within 100 yards of the fire station at City Hall. Suddenly the wind shifted, and the fire turned back on itself, saving the town. The fire burned out of control for three days untilJuly 5. Firefighters arrived from all over the Bay Area, some with their engines, like the San Francisco crews who came on the ferry withtheir engines.
However, their hoses did not fit our hydrants. They still don't!

How the fire was started is still a mystery. Speculation is that a spark from the old railroad train or possibly very dry grass that had heatedunder discarded glass began the blaze. Ruth White Bowie said in the 1970's the family thought it might have been a cigarette thrown from the
train.

Oral histories recount that on Locust Ave. some homeowners were up ontheir roof beating out sparks, and burning fragments were wafting over Alto homes. Note that the rest of the town was only saved when the wind shifted.

In the end, 117 homes were lost. Today in the same footprint, it would be more than 1100. The fire burned over 2500 acres - about the same size as the Oakland Hills "Tunnel Fire" in 1991 that burned 3500 homes less than 20 miles away. A major fire on Mt Tamalpais WILL happen again. The ever increasing fuel load on the mountain will likely contribute to even greater destruction than the fires of history.

September 14, 1881

William Pixley, while cleaning his land by burning brush in Corte Madera, set a fire that escaped his control, swept up the slopes of Mount Tamalpais and reportedly burned 65,000 acres before being controlled. According to newspaper accounts "The fire burned freely until September 20 and was then contained (or more likely died out on its own) by a force of 35 to 40 men."

September 24, 1889

The San Francisco Chronicle reported that "sparks from a passing train set fire to brush at the Corte Madera Depot. The fire soon spread and reached into heavy timber in the mountains where it raged fiercely".

October 25, 1890

The Morning Oregonian reported that "for the past 10 days a forest fire had been raging in the Coast Range Mountains between San Rafael and Bolinas, Marin County. Over 8, 000 acres has burned and the fire is still burning in an easterly direction. Eight bridges on the road between San Rafael and Bolinas (Bolinas-Fairfax Rd.) have been burned down. The mail is being carried across Mount Tamalpais by Pony Express. Over 200 men are engaged in fighting the fire."

June 28, 1891

The San Francisco Chronicle reported "A fire started in Bill William’s Gulch at the base of Mount Tamalpais, swept the sides of the mountains, the dense woods back of Toss Station, those near Lagunitas, the Kent property, covering 12,000 acres. It destroyed immense quantities of timber, miles of fences, and many acres of pasture. July 1, the S.F. Bulletin reports "fires on Mt. Tam still burning San Quentin reports the whole Mountain to be ablaze. A force of 100 men were sent from this city (San Francisco) yesterday to assist those already there. $5.00 a day is being paid." July 3, the Bulletin reports "The fire has been extinguished on Mt. Tamalpais but is still burning in the Mill Valley gulches".

September 10, 1894

"Forest fire burning in the western suburbs of Mill Valley today and for awhile threatened the whole region. It is supposed to have originated from a camp near here. It has burned over a large stretch of country."  Morning Oregonian 9-10-1894

September 25, 1899

A fire in Bill Williams Gulch was controlled by men who "surrounded the burning area and felled trees to check the flames".

September 14, 1904

The Marin Journal reports "One of the most disastrous forest fires commenced on Bolinas Ridge behind the Hasbrouck property.  Fanned by northerly winds flames rushed westward over the ridge to the McCurdy and Wilkins ranches, then south through the Bourne, Morse, and Stintson ranches. Many buildings on the Hasbrouck ranch were destroyed as was the Summit House. The county road from Wilkins to the summit was littered with burning logs and loose rock obstructions, all culverts and bridges were destroyed. To the east the winds were erratic first the fire would drive toward Camp Taylor then Pine Hill and then into Cascade Canyon.  Sheriff Taylor took a number of men into the hills to keep the flames away from county bridges."

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