Brian Hamilton: Where were you, when you heard word of the 49er Fire in western Nevada County? |

Brian Hamilton: Where were you, when you heard word of the 49er Fire in western Nevada County?

Brad Prowse couldn't keep up with all the phone calls coming in from across the state and country, checking on him and his family as news coverage of California wildfires had folks seriously concerned.

His mother promised each well-wisher he'd report back with more, once things calmed down with the fire — one that ripped through more than 33,000 acres and 300 structures in western Nevada County.

"Since I was busy at the time keeping embers from igniting my shorts, she said I'd send you a description of the fire at a later, hopefully cooler, date," Prowse wrote. "So this is it. It's probably going to be a lot longer and more about the fire than you really want to know.

"However, I figured if I'm going to write it up, I might as well put down as much detail as I can recall, just so later on my family here and I can look aback on it. Anyway, here goes …"

It's likely similar promises for similar reports are being made to many people today, as they call to check on loved ones in the path of any one of the 17 large wildfires burning across the Golden State.

But, of course, Brad Prowse was writing about the 49er Fire, which devastated western Nevada County 30 years ago this September.

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"On the second day, the fire returned to burn on our left and our right again, crossed over in front of us and burned several homes just down the road … also wiping out a lot of homes to the south and racing over the Grass Valley Group property, where I work," Prowse wrote on Oct. 4, 1988. "It continued on to threaten Rough and Ready and Penn Valley, as well as hitting Lake Wildwood again.

"Finally, on the third day, the fire turned toward the east and headed for Highway 49, not too far out of Nevada City. Had it managed to jump that, it might have gone on to threaten (Nevada City) itself."

The fire started Sept. 11, 1988, when a mentally ill transient ignited toilet paper while living in a San Juan Ridge encampment near Highway 49 and Birchville Road. The fire consumed more than 140 homes, and caused a reported $22 million in property damage.

Prowse said he'd heard word of a fire somewhere above Nevada City, but didn't give it much thought until a few hours later when his daughter, Brandy, dialed him up.

"I got home, put the horse away and was just sitting down to glance at the Sunday papers," Prowse wrote. "It was about 1:30 in the afternoon. The phone ran. It was Brandy. She said, somewhat breathlessly, something that sounded like, 'Dad? I'm tired. I'm going to vacuum the house.'

"That's nice," I said. "A clean home is a happy home."

"No! No! I said, there's a fire! They're evacuating us!"


Soon after, just a couple miles down the road from his home, Prowse could see an entire treeline near Jones Bar Road belching huge clouds of dark, rolling smoke.

"It was scary looking, almost as much as flames would be … The blaze was on."

Three decades later, the sight and smell of smoke in the summer still strikes fear in western county. Even if many who live here might not remember the 49er Fire, though many certainly do, last October's Lobo and McCourtney fires hit close to home for several of us. Those fires, which Cal Fire said were caused by trees falling into power lines, burned through 47 structures and 820 acres near Lake Wildwood and another 13 buildings and 76 acres near the county fairgrounds.

Nearly 14,000 firefighters are on the front lines of wildfires across California this week, as more than 619,000 acres and 2,000 structures have been burned through. Some 36,000 residents remain under evacuation, Cal Fire reported Wednesday, and noted the Mendocino Complex — a group of fires burning at nearly 300,000 acres in Mendocino and Lake counties —in total is now the largest fire in state history. The Carr Fire, burning near 170,000 acres in the Redding area, is now the 12th largest.

As we approach the 30th anniversary of the 49er Fire, The Union would like to share your memories from that day — Sept. 11, 1988 — and the frightening week that followed. Where were you when you first heard word? How were you impacted? What moments stand out in your mind? Email 200-300 words sharing your experience, along with any photographs you've scrapbooked, to and we'll share with the community as we observe next month's anniversary.

Brad Prowse put together such a scrapbook on the 49er Fire, which his daughter, Brandy, was kind enough to bring by The Union in advance of the anniversary. It's another example of her dad giving The Union, and its readers, a gift that keeps on giving. Before he died in 2014, Brad wrote nearly six years worth of his "100 years ago in Nevada County" history columns for The Union, which take readers back in time each month as we continue to publish his work.

And now, through his scrapbook, Brad Prowse leads our community back to 1988 and one of most memorable moments in our more modern history.

"In the future, as one of the firemen said on TV, the biggest problem will be the houses in the forest," Prowse wrote. Do they try to save them or try to stop the forest fire? Their resources are limited; can't always do both. It might come down to where a forest dweller had better figure on making his house forest-fireproof by clearing brush and building with low-flammable materials … and even then, there will always be a certain risk.

"Ah, well. Some places have hurricanes and tornadoes; others earthquakes and floods. We got forest fires."

Contact Editor Brian Hamilton at or 530-477-4249.


As we approach the 30th anniversary of 49er Fire, The Union would like to share your memories from that day — Sept. 11, 1988 — and the frightening week that followed. Email 200-300 words sharing your experience, along with any photographs you’ve scrapbooked, to and we’ll share with the community as we observe next month’s anniversary.

For more on the 49er Fire, visit the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County’s website — — where you’ll find the maps, photos, video and memories of area residents and firefighters who fought the blaze, as well as retrospective “The Faces of the 49er Fire,” written by Dian Schaffhauser in 2008.

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