An inferno remembered
Virginia Lee sits at the front of her piano, her thin fingers cascading over the keys in an easy lilt.
Her dog, Jack, sits beside her as his master’s soprano voice crescendos at the chorus of “Climb Every Mountain,” which could easily serve as an allegory for the Nevada City woman’s life.
The piano is Lee’s respite from daily life. It is also a reminder of the life she could have lost ” two decades ago in the 49er Fire.
“I didn’t believe it was going to burn,” Lee said about losing her beloved home in the most devastating fire to hit Nevada County in a century. “I thought, ‘These guys are so good, there’s no way they’re going to let it get away.'”
Fueled by fierce winds coming in from the north, the fire started on the San Juan Ridge and moved faster than anyone had time to react, including the firefighters.
By the time the humidity crept up and the winds died, an area from Penn Valley to North San Juan burned 33,500 acres and torched about 500 structures on Sept. 11, 1988, causing $22.7 million in damage.
The fire started on Tyler-Foote Crossing Road and Highway 49 when a homeless man, apparently upset at his dog, lit a piece of toilet paper on fire ” making the incident more surreal.
A weathered newspaper article from 1988 sits atop the piano in Lee’s home in Nevada City, describing how, after losing her house on Yuba Crest Drive, she would be returning to the stage to sing once again, just a few short months later.
Lee was able to grow and regain her life back. By Decem-ber of that year, she was singing again in public, and by the next year, she’d remarried after a divorce, to the man who offered her refuge at his Marjon Drive home in Nevada City, when her home overlooking the Yuba River Canyon burned.
“My life had radical change after the fire. When the fire happened, I started over. It was a forced change,” she said. “I never knew how much the community meant to us.”
Lee’s memory of the 49er Fire is much like a version of Nevada County’s own Zapruder film: Everyone remembers where they were when it happened, and residents who lived it, can’t seem to shake the memories, especially this time of year.
For anyone who has lived here during that time or since, the fire is a constant reminder of the wild, rugged place that is western Nevada County, a swath of land that grows volatile each summer with the changing wind and never-ending supply of fuel that can turn a spark into fast-moving, and in the case of the 49er Fire, physically devastating inferno.
On the morning the fire began, Lee was at her Yuba Crest Drive home, off Jones Bar Road. Once the fire started, it spread quickly to the southwest. Lee remembers just how fast the fire moved, crowning on the tops of evergreens on the following day, spreading with the aid of fast-moving embers carried by hot, dry winds.
A day after the fire began, firefighters were staged on the deck of her property, as Lee loaded valuables, preparing to evacuate her home.
The fire crowned suddenly, and a cadre of firefighters sitting on the deck, holding their fire hoses, leaped up and left.
Seemingly within minutes after carting out antique furniture and photographs, Lee’s dream home overlooking the Yuba River canyon was gone. It had jumped the river ” something Lee thought was impossible.
“It was bigger and moved much faster than we ever expected,” said Jeff Wagner, then the chief of the volunteer North San Juan Fire Protection District, the first agency to respond to the fire.
Asked if his department, with three engines and about 20 volunteers, was prepared for the size and scope of the fire, Wagner simply said “No.”
“In a fire like that, all you can do is set up and protect life and property,” said Wagner, now the fire prevention officer for the city of Grass Valley.
The fire, fueled by dry winds, grew to more than 4,000 acres by the afternoon of the 11th.
Though the terrain wasn’t particularly steep or rugged, the speed was unexpected.
“It was depressing, to say the least,” Wagner said. “In those kinds of conditions, no amount of personnel was going to stop it.”
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Chuck Idler was one of the lucky ones.
He was living in Cupertino when his wife mentioned to him that their Lake Wildwood rental was on the television, in flames.
Fortunately, the home had just been vacated.
The next day, Idler picked up a copy of the San Jose Mercury News and saw the home on the front page.
“It was kind of pathetic,” said Idler, who was planning to move into the home the next year.
Idler, who now lives in Alta Sierra, ended up being one of the lucky ones, considering the devastation in Lake Wildwood, a gated community southwest of the fire’s origin.
“It was very upsetting,” he said. “Look at all of the people (who lost their homes) who lived there.”
Upon returning to their property, Idler and his wife found little more than the burned-out frame of an air-conditioning unit.
“We recovered very well,” said Idler, who built a home in Wildwood the next year, “and we were very fortunate. We had more empathy for the people who lost their homes.”
Ruth Brown also feels a twinge of guilt when she recalls the 49er Fire.
Her home on Starduster Drive was saved, but it wasn’t because some retired firefighters were at her home that day or she was married to a retired Los Angeles firefighter.
Brown’s home was saved, but she, too, had to scramble to save her belongings, including a Model T and Model A Ford. While she was busy removing belongings, including horses, wild possums and a goose she stuffed in a trash can, she watched the home across the street burn to the ground.
Brown said her home was saved, largely because it was built with a concrete tile roof.
By the time the fire swept through the neighborhood, she said, “It looked like we were raising toothpicks all around. I was numb by that time.”
There wasn’t much else she could do, except watch the fire race across the back of her property, crossing a 1,000-acre ranch, while crowning to 60-feet flames in places.
The odor, Brown said, was sour.
As she watched, she couldn’t believe the fire began when transient Gary Wayne Parris lit toilet paper on fire. Parris was later deemed incompetent to stand trial and was released several years ago from the state’s custody.
“His stupidity is understandable,” said Brown, who didn’t know Parris. “He’s not there to think of other people. He doesn’t have a family. He has only himself to think about.
“It was a stupid, stupid mistake.”
Brown said she also felt fortunate, in a sad way, after the fire.
“I wanted to cry, and I felt guilty for not having my home burned down,” she said.
Brown still lives in the same home. The fire has made her a bit fearless, if wary.
“In a way, I think I’m cocky,” she said. “I figured I survived once, I can survive again. I don’t live with the fear of it anymore. I survived it, I’m over it. I look back and say if I survived it, I can get over anything. I just respect (fire) more.”
Virginia Lee’s son now lives in a home he rebuilt on the property where his mother’s house once stood. The area has recovered, much like Lee herself.
She lived on the property overlooking the Yuba River canyon for 20 years, and leaving was beyond difficult once the fire burned.
“I was feeling like I was losing everything. That physical residence, to me, was my home, my family,” she said. “I was able to recover because of my friends and my family’s faith.”
The fire, she said, was a lot like God’s way of cleaning house.
“I just never imagined it would be mine,” Lee said.
To contact Staff Writer David Mirhadi,
e-mail email@example.com or call 477-4239.
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