Through the lens: Photographer remembers Nevada County’s 49er Fire (PHOTO GALLERY) | TheUnion.com

Through the lens: Photographer remembers Nevada County’s 49er Fire (PHOTO GALLERY)

John Hart
Special to The Union

I heard the fire tone around 9 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 11, 1988, and hurried up Highway 49 north of Nevada City to take photos of the fire.

I stayed up in the area to about noon, as I had to get to downtown Nevada City for the Constitution Day parade on Broad Street. On the way down, I saw many engines from CDF (California Department of Forestry) and local agencies and governments traveling up Highway 49 to the fire.

As people watched the parade coming down Broad Street, a column smoke hung high above the parade in the background. The late Bob Wyckoff was serving as emcee for the parade, as he had done for many years — always joking around with the parade participants and the crowd — but that day he told the crowd the Bitney Springs Road area was being evacuated. Wyckoff had to repeat many times to the crowd that he wasn't joking and that people should go home and pack their cars with family items and pets and head to a shelter or friends.

After I left the parade, I walked into the house and a phone message was waiting from Editor Judy Mooers, saying she wanted me to get back to the fire area and take more photos for Monday's paper.

I drove to the Bitney Springs Road area, where the smoke of the fire was so thick that you couldn't see much. But I did see a family walking toward me, leading their animals through the smoke. Large flames were in the air alongside the road near the Grass Valley Group site, as fire personnel were fighting to put out the fire. But the wind was too much for the firefighters.

I heard on the scanner that the fire had moved down to Lake Wildwood area and took out some homes in the community. When I got into Lake Wildwood, I drove to Sun Forest Drive area where homes had been destroyed by the fire. Getting late in the afternoon, I needed to get back, but Wildflower Drive was packed with other cars getting out the area. It was slow going, not really moving at all, and the fire was coming down through the dry grass to the roadway.

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The going was so slow that I pulled into a park and waited for most of the traffic to move out of Lake Wildwood. The smoke was so thick you couldn't see the other side of the lake, and burning boats were drifting across the lake.

Each morning of the fire, the photo department worked in the darkroom developing film, making black and white prints and color separation for the afternoon newspaper before the photographers went out for more action photos of the fire for the next day's paper.


A Look Back: The 49er Fire by The Union Newspaper on Exposure

Each day, The Union published extra information on the fire on a two-sided, single sheet of paper, that was delivered to the firefighters at the base camp at Nevada County Fairgrounds. CDF took over the grounds and also used the vacant property across McCourtney Road for the fire helicopters.

Eventually the fire headed toward Rough and Ready and CDF told people of the town to evacuate. Rough and Ready Highway was closed for one-way traffic out of town toward Penn Valley. I got to the road block at Highway 20 and Rough and Ready Highway early and talked my way into Ready and Ready. Most of the town people stayed in the parking lot of the market, watching the air tankers dropping retardant on the fire off Rough and Ready Road. I remember a Sacramento TV station was also there interviewing the town residents.

After the fire was finally under control, CDF Captain Charlie Jakobs arranged a fly-over of the fire area in a CDF helicopter for local media to show the destruction the fire did in the area. Those photos are among the many others shared here from The Union's coverage of the 49er Fire 30 years ago.

John Hart is a former photographer and 50-year employee of The Union. He lives in Grass Valley.