The Mayacamas Fire of 1923
The fire of September 1923 was one of the worst wildfires in the history of Sonoma Valley. Its damage prompted the creation of the Glen Ellen Fire Department. The following story is based on first- and second-hand accounts. For brevity, several people’s experiences were combined into those of Melvin Phelps. The postscript contains additional details.
Little rain fell in the winter of 1923 and by late summer the Mayacamas were like a tinderbox. At the top of Triniti [sic] Road was a place called Fraziers’ Resort. By the middle of September, the summer guests were gone and the Fraziers were closing up for the season. Lida Frazier had recently had a stroke and couldn’t get around very well. Her grown sons, Jim, John, Claren and Wendell, were doing much of the work. John’s wife, Fay, and their six-year-old daughter, Joan, were also there.
The Fraziers’ nearest neighbor, Melvin “Vine” Phelps, lived a mile away. One evening, Vine invited everyone in the area to a potluck. People brought instruments, too, so there was music and dancing and everyone had a good time.
During the party, the north wind began to blow. By the time the Fraziers left, it was roaring over the ridge. Jim, who’d been talking with some other men about the fire danger, was worried. Back home, he stayed up, walking around outside. He was just about to go to bed when he smelled the scent of a wildfire.
Waking his brothers, they decided that John should stay with his family. With no fire department or 9-1-1 to call, Jim, Wendell and Claren loaded their truck with shovels and wet sacks and drove off to fight the fire. It was too dark to see any smoke and the ridges hid the flames. All they could do was follow the smell. They soon came upon dozens of cars and trucks parked along the road. Thirty or 40 men were gathered at three in the morning, ready to fight the fire. But no one knew where it was.
As daylight broke, they saw a huge plume of smoke to the north. Cutting down trees for a firebreak, the men hoped to keep the blaze from sweeping down Nunns’ Canyon into Glen Ellen. The wind grew so strong that they could barely stand. Flames appeared on a distant ridge, moving towards them. Everyone worked frantically, but within minutes, smoke filled the air and the trees around them caught fire. The men dropped their tools and ran.
Reaching home, the brothers found John hosing down the house. Joan and Fay climbed into the car, holding suitcases on their laps. Lida got in, too, but because of her stroke, couldn’t hold her suitcase. Jim jammed it between the bumper and the body of the car, and drove off. The plan was to evacuate by train from Glen Ellen.
Claren let the horses free so they wouldn’t be trapped if the barn caught fire. John and Wendell worked together to wet down the house. Within minutes, the treetops burst into flames and it seemed the sky itself was on fire. John heard someone screaming. He looked to his brothers, but neither one was making a sound. He couldn’t figure out where it was coming from.
Halfway down the mountain, Jim hit a pothole and Lida’s suitcase flew off. Everything in it – photos, jewelry and clothing – scattered over the road. She pleaded with him to stop, but Jim could see the fire was right behind them.
Whenever they passed a house, Jim honked his horn and yelled, “Fire!” Reaching Glen Ellen, he left the women at the depot, and continued south to spread the alarm. At the Sonoma Plaza, Jim ran into Clewe’s General Store looking wild-eyed and disheveled, shouting that a big fire was coming.
The clerk responded, “I don’t know what you’ve been drinking, but you should go home.” Jim replied, “I don’t know if I even have a home.” Jim did stay at a friend’s house for two days, while the fire destroyed the Springs and consumed part of El Verano.
When the wind finally died down and the fire stopped spreading, Jim began making his way home. Driving up Triniti Road, he found a blackened, smoldering landscape, lifeless and silent. There was no sign of his mother’s suitcase.
Afraid of what he might find, Jim turned into the resort’s long drive. Then three figures appeared, running toward him. Jim pulled over and embraced his brothers. Catching his breath, John reported, “We saved the house and the barn. All we lost were some fruit trees and the linens piled in the yard.” No one answered when Jim asked how Vine was – they’d been too busy to check on him.
Jim’s heart sank when they pulled into Vine’s and found only the well and chimney still standing. As he walked over for a drink of water, a rattlesnake slithered out of the well, flicked its tongue at him, and slid away. A little leery, Jim peered into the dark well. Miraculously, the bucket was still hanging inside. As he reached for it, he heard a muffled yell. “Was that you?” he asked his brothers. They shook their heads. Jim heard it again. “Vine? Is that you?” he asked. “Get me outta here!” was the reply.
After they hauled him out with a rope, Vine explained, “When the fire arrived, the only refuge left was the well. Going down was no problem; I just couldn’t get back up. Luckily there’s only four feet of water at the bottom. I was standing there, looking up, when I saw something slither over the edge, and then another and another . . . six rattlesnakes had the same idea I did! They were so scared they didn’t even bother me. In fact, they never even rattled.”
Postscript: Trinity Road was originally spelled ‘Triniti.’ The fire was started by an ember left when three honey hunters smoked out a wild hive with a smudge stick. John was actually hearing his own screams on the way down the mountain – firefighters report that this can happen in terrifying situations.
This September marks the 50th anniversary of the 1964 wildfire, another fire that consumed much of the same area that burned in 1923. It was so intense that one firefighter remarked, “At times even the Pacific Ocean couldn’t have stopped it.”