Forces Of Nature

by Marshall Newman, August 28, 2013

As regular readers of my occasional articles have probably realized by now, I find nature — in all its forms — fascinating. Maybe we lived closer to nature during my time in Anderson Valley from the late 1950s to the late 1980s because it often dictated daily life back then. Annual rainfall in Anderson Valley during that era — as noted in my September, 2012 Anderson Valley Advertiser article “If the Good Lord’s Willing and the Creek Don’t Rise” — was clearly more than today, and I think morning fog was more frequent and denser as well. One of the things that seems not to have changed — though it was late this year — is the June heat wave, which arrived like clockwork during the first three weeks of the month and lasted anywhere from two to four days, with daily high temperatures soaring to more than 100 degrees each day.

Occasionally though, forces of nature are unpredictable. Three such in Anderson Valley are wildfire, wind and earthquake. In truth, some residents will never experience them, but the longer one lives in the valley, the greater the likelihood of experiencing one or more.

Many residents will recall the wildfires of 2008 that burned along the valley’s slopes and blackened the sky with smoke for days. I stayed away while the fires raged, but I watched their progress on Cal Fire’s incident website with some trepidation. At one point, the wildfire on the western slopes of the valley was within six miles of where we used to live. Fortunately, the fire never reached our old property, but the potential of the fire moving that distance and doing so quickly was always there. In addition to an impressive amount of burned acreage, those fires left a nasty souvenir; smoke taint that made local wines from the 2008 vintage — particularly reds — idiosyncratic at best and virtually undrinkable at worst.

I fought two wildfires in Anderson Valley during my years there. The first was on our property in — I believe — early 1970s. The California Department of Forestry (CDF, the predecessor of Cal Fire) had made a “high fire danger” declaration for the North Coast that August day, but El Rancho Navarro — my parent’s summer camp — was on normal schedule. The first clue we had of a problem was seeing an air tanker loop below the ridge to the northwest. It made a second loop and came out dripping red borate. A CDF truck, followed by a low boy with a small Caterpillar tractor on board passed our gate a minute later. We grabbed our fire fighting tools — the CDF loaned us a box of them each year — and headed up the hill to join them.

We were lucky. The fire, probably caused by a wayward cigarette tossed during one of the neighboring resort’s trail rides, was brought under control quickly thanks to light winds, plenty of manpower on the fire lines and several water drops (I had “red” hair from borate as a result). Though the fire was in dense timber, only about an acre burned (redwood forests burn, but usually duff and brush understory only; redwood bark is thick and fire resistant, so only rarely do the trees themselves burn). While helping build a fire line, I discovered the person next to me wasn’t a firefighter or one of the neighbors, but just a local who saw the CDF trucks and decided to help! Anderson Valley was that sort of place back then.

My second wildfire was in the mid-1980s in September, during Mendocino County Fair weekend. I had just arrived at the fairgrounds that morning to attend the fair when I noticed black smoke beginning to rise to the north. As I drove to take a closer look, the fire siren went off.

This one was a grass fire in the field southeast of where Elke Vineyards is now located. Unlike the forest fire I fought, this one had wind behind it and moved fast. I was handed a Pulaski and joined a bunch of other people along the north side clearing a fire line, but tanker trucks soon arrived to knock it down with water. Again, there were lots of strangers helping out; two guys working the line next to me were from Ukiah, in town for the fair. This one burned about 40 acres, even though it was contained in just over an hour.

On a recent visit to Anderson Valley, I noticed something unusual. I was walking west of the Navarro River and realized redwood trees up to approximately two feet in diameter were pristine, while larger trees bore fire marks on their bark. A mile and one ridge later, I saw the same pattern; the smaller trees were unmarked, the larger trees were singed. Clearly a forest fire had burned through the area, but when? In addition to the size of the trees, the most tangible clue was a tall stump from the earliest era of valley logging, when loggers cut redwoods eight or more feet up (standing on springboards notched into the tree) to avoid the wide base. This particular stump had been burned over, so the fire took place after the tree was felled. My best guess is the fire burned between 1860 and 1900.

Big wind — powerful, damaging wind — is a rarity in Anderson Valley, but occurs when the conditions are just right. Those conditions are a very strong low to the northwest and a very strong high to the southeast. Air will move northwest towards the low to equalize the pressure and powerful wind is the result. For most valley residents, a wind event will cause a power outage and/or perhaps a few broken tree limbs. Unfortunately, the Newmans weren’t so lucky. With a summer camp shaded by some of Anderson Valley’s biggest Douglas fir trees, big wind had the potential of big damage.

On an early spring afternoon in the mid-1970s, that potential became reality. The wind began building and finally peaked at an estimated 70 to 80 miles-per-hour. Many of our biggest firs — which were upwards of 150 feet tall — were blown down, all in the same direction. Make no mistake, when a tree that big hits a building, it usually goes right through to the foundation. By the time the wind subsided, four cabins had been completely destroyed, two had been damaged and our shop had a tree through it that would have hit the ground if it hadn’t hit the cab of our pickup truck first. The cab was smashed down to the dashboard, but after the tree was cut and lifted off, the driver’s side door could still be opened and closed. The heaviest of the wind lasted perhaps an hour, but it took us months to rebuild.

Fortunately, such events are truly rare. We experienced one big wind during our 31 years in the valley and I believe the valley has had only one — or perhaps two — since.

 

As this article is getting long, the subject of earthquakes in Anderson Valley will have to wait for another day and article.

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