Mike Dobbins: Memories of the 49er Fire | TheUnion.com

Mike Dobbins: Memories of the 49er Fire

Mike Dobbins
Laura Mahaffy/lmahaffy@theunion.com | The Union


What you think is important in an emergency evacuation often isn’t.

I was lucky to learn that.

It wasn’t until returning three days later that, to my horror, I discovered I’d left some of the most precious, irreplaceable things — family portraits, photos and other momentos overlooked in the panic to get out.

Insurance papers and such are important too, but replaceable. That photo of your first-born blowing out the candles of her first birthday cake isn’t.

Take heed, gather them or know where they are, now.

— Mike Dobbins

I remember it was hot.

Even by late morning, one knew it was going to be a burner … maybe up past 90 degrees. (Yes, in 88 that was considered a hot day. My how things have changed)

It was Sunday, and nothing better to do than wash the car when my wife came out and asked if I could see the smoke.

At the time I lived at the end of Jones Bar Road, near the Yuba Canyon’s ridge and set back from the cliff about a hundred yards.

The way the community came together, remains in my mind, as the most moving experience for me.

It was a clear day, blue sky with a slight breeze. I looked to where she was pointing and saw a column of smoke rising from the area I knew to be near the Highway 49 bridge.

It was close, but I wasn’t too worried. The thin smoke column was rising straight up. Like I said, “slight breeze.” (We later learned the fire was started by a burning piece of toilet paper, dropped by a presumably homeless man near river’s edge.)

Shortly thereafter, I heard a number of sirens responding on nearby Highway 49 and was convinced it would be out shortly, so continued with my chores.

But, the more I thought about it, the fact I was director of the news operations at KNCO radio, I decided better safe than sorry and called the station.

Because it was Sunday, the only staff at the station was a weekend air personality who ran and monitored a pre-recorded religious Sunday morning program.

I suggested he simply announce the location of the fire and that emergency responders were on the way and to be aware of the potential traffic problems.

Within the next 30 minutes, I realized the wind was picking up and the smoke was no longer a plume, but a rather large mass sweeping west and down the Yuba River valley.

I called the station and was told the phone was “ringing off the wall.” I told him to alert the station manager and other staff to help, and I moved to a neighbor’s house that overlooked the canyon and river. From there I filed continuous updates as the flames marched down the canyon.

It wasn’t long before a CDF (Cal Fire) truck and two fireman pulled up to the neighbor’s house with orders for everyone gathered there to evacuate. Apparently, the fire was doubling back and rapidly crawling up the slope.

I ran home, grabbed all the “important” stuff, — wife and dogs, etc. — and drove out as flames reached the ridge’s crest.

We were forced to leave two horses and a goat in the upper meadow. I opened the corral gate, hoping they would naturally escape the flames (They did).

The fire was roaring down the canyon and heading for Rough and Ready and Lake Wildwood, consuming everything in its path, burning so hot that Manzanita trees ignited, exploded and turned into mere empty holes in the ground. Gone! Not even any ash. Just a smoldering black hole.

After securing the family and furry friends, I returned to the threatened areas and, knocking on doors, was given access to landline telephones by frightened homeowners. It helped that I was driving the station’s van. I was welcomed to use their landline to update listeners. By this time, the entire news staff had descended on the station and were updating listeners non-stop.

We’d suspended all programing and simply linked callers to the air and let them report observations and announce locations for evacuees to find shelter. Advertisers called and volunteered to suspend running their ads so as not to interrupt the flow of information to listeners … that continued for three days.

Until that event, KNCO was a 5 a.m. to midnight broadcast operation. That changed the first night. We went 24 hours and remained that way each day that week with coverage and reports from the fire scene, reporting on the level of destruction.

By Thursday, the winds died and the fire had moved on, eventually burning itself out in the vast Spenceville Wildlife area near Beale Air Base.

In its wake, 33,700 scorched acres and 312 destroyed homes and outbuildings. Two houses on my street were burned to the ground, nothing left but white dust.

The way the community came together, remains in my mind, as the most moving experience for me. As an example, at one point early in the week, Red Cross called the station announcing its need for blankets, food and clothing for the victims and evacuees, as well as food for pets and livestock. “If anyone has anything to spare … we would put it to good use.”

The response was almost instantaneous. It literally brought tears to the eyes.

Hours and hours into the night, car after car pulled into the station’s parking lot, only slowing enough to pass food, water, blankets, clothing or cash out the car’s window.

The line backed up nearly a mile in both directions on East Main Street. KNCO’s sales manager Jay Cooper found himself acting as a traffic control officer helping coordinate the continuous outpouring of love and concern for neighbors, friends and, more often than not, people unknown.

A week later, the community gathered at the fairgrounds to thank and honor the men and women of all our local and state fire agencies. A huge crowd showed up to just say “Thank You!”

To be part of that was life-changing for me. To witness that love for others in distress and danger — well, it is still hard to put into words the sense of gratitude and pride I felt.

To see this community come together like it did, it remains the highlight of a four-decade career of reporting the events of western Nevada County. Much has changed in that time, that has not!

Mike Dobbins, former KNCO radio news director, is editor of The Wildwood Independent. Contact him at mdobbins@theunion.com.

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