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Los Gatos Fires and the Los Gatos Fire Department

fire articleLos Gatos Fire Department History

Fire was a major danger in Los Gatos in the 1800s. Buildings were made of wood, including sidewalks (think boardwalk), and most appliances – light, heat, cooking – still used an open flame. Fire was a greater, more present danger than local wildlife (cougars and grizzlies). In its early years, the town relied on bucket brigades, finally graduating to two volunteer Hose Companies and a Hook and Ladder Company in around 1886. The Cold Spring Water Company of Los Gatos filed to incorporate in December 1890 with the stated purpose to “introduce water for domestic and fire purposes into the town of Los Gatos.”. In 1888 the town passed an ordinance to provide for the organization of a dedicated Fire Department, and perhaps just in time. A major cartridge fire in July of 1891 leveled many of the town’s businesses, and saw the shift of the business district from the east bank to the west bank of the Los Gatos Creek – and it has remained so to this day.

While many major fires destroyed homes, stores, hotels, and even an opera house, the worst is often said to be the 1901 fire.

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Fires in Bonny Doon Remind Us to be Careful, Especially in the "Fire Season"

August 14, 2009

August brings very little rainfall to Los Gatos, Saratoga, and San Jose.  The long, dry days make our wooded hills and grassy meadows particularly vulnerable to fire.  A small spark from an untended burn or an electric motor – perhaps even clearing the brush to prevent fires – can have disastrous consequences.  The current fire just “over the hill” in Bonny Doon and close to Santa Cruz is a big reminder to us that we live with the risk of fire year-round, but especially at this time of year.

Los Gatos has an old history with fire disasters, both in town and in the nearby mountain communities.  I’m not referring to the Lexington fire of 1985 (which happened about three weeks before my wedding).  I’m referring to our collective “wild west” history.  A serious fire levelled part of downtown Los Gatos on July 26, 1891, destroying nine “buildings on both sides of East Main Street from the bridge to College Avenue”.  Again on October 13, 1901, a livery fire on Montebello Road destroyed ” much of the business district along West Main Street, from the bridge to the railroad tracks. Nearly 60 buildings burn to the ground.”   Among the casualties of that fire was the bell tower to alert the townspeople of fire!  (Both of these quotes from a timeline produced by the Los Gatos Times Weekly.)  See photos of the fires and the firefighters at the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s page on Los Gatos and the hiistory of fire fighting in our town.)

In January 1934, there was a fire at the Jesuit Novitiate.  The water supply was inadequate so the decision was made to pump out the wine to extinguish the fire. Some 60,000 gallons of newer wine was used – and saved 200,000 gallons of old wine (plus the vineyards, which would have taken years to be fruitful again if lost to fire).  This was a repeat of a similar event in the mountains in the late 1800s, when red wine used to battle the fire caused the Los Gatos Creek to run red.  We can only imagine how the townspeople felt when they saw the creek turn a plague-like red! 

But back to today (even though the history – and what’s above is only partial – of Los Gatos and fires is fascinating), we want to make sure that this type of history doesn’t repeat itself. Besides, you probably don’t have 60,000 gallons of wine to throw at a fire anyway.

What can you do to lower your risk of fire?

There are varying levels of risk.  If you have a large parcel of land with a lot of vegetation that dries out in summer, you’ll have much more risk than a homeowner with a green lawn and plants close to the home.  In all cases, clear any dead brush, vegetation, bushes, etc away from your home; the Cal Fire site suggests 100′  for riskier areas (which makes sense if you are in a rural area, but perhaps is not so feasible in a suburban or tract neighborhood). It’s better to cut weeds, grass and bushes back prior to 10am, when there’s more humidity (and less chance of a spark turning into a flame).  Do not stack firewood up against your home. Do not have open fires or untended fires, particularly if embers can get away. It goes without saying, of course, to be especially careful with cigarettes, fireworks, and other burning or smoldering items.  It’s not worth the risk to be careless.  Please see the Cal Fire site for more info for homeowners: http://www.fire.ca.gov/fire_prevention/fire_prevention_wildland_zones.php

If you are in a “very high fire danger area” – places next to large, open and wooded parks, homes on large parcels up against the hills – you should know if your home is in that zone – you’ll have extra responsibilities.  You will be required to have that clearance mentioned above, for instance.  You can find the zone maps and the regulations here, on the California Department of Forestry and Fire Prevention site.

Fires are risky for homeowners, pets, wildlife, and the men and women who risk it all to battle the blazes for us.  The cost is very high when a fire takes hold – when  a home goes down from fire, so much is lost that simply can never be replaced.  Nothing is worse than the loss of human life, though.  Many thanks to the firefighters who are out there waging war on the flames right now.  Let’s do our best to give them nothing to do.

Smokey and Eerie Skies from The Lick Fire

September 06, 2007

The fire in the eastern foothills of Santa Clara Valley beganalmost 3 days ago and was first spotted from the James LickObservatory – so has been dubbed the Lick Fire. The first day and ahalf, an enormous plume ofsmoke could be seen rising in the hills by south San Jose andMorgan Hill from Henry Coe State Park.  Smoke and haze hungover the eastern range; it was in contrast to the rest of the areabetween there and the coastal foothills, where thesky remained blue.

But chiarascura didn’t last. For a day now, the haze hasthickened. Smoke is pouring in, and not much of it seems to beescaping.

We can’t see the plume anymore. We can’t even see that bank ofhills anymore. Too much smoke.

A 7:15 am view of the sun from close to Los Gatos at Blossom Hill Road and Camden Avenue, Sept 6 2007

This morning I drove my kids toschool in and near downtown San Jose (Notre Dame High School andBellarmine College Prep). Heading east on Blossom Hill Road, wewere shocked at the eeriely discolored sun hanging low in the sky.It was a pinkish red, a look that you might see just at sunseton a fall or summer evening – but not when the sun was so high inthe sky. (Photo above taken with Palm Treo.) It was justcreepy.

Because the fire is located in a remote region of the park, withrough terrain and no roads, it’s difficult to get close enough toeven fight it.

Often fires begin because of a cigarette tossedcarelessly. Earlier this summer, a fire ignited whensomeone used a power mower to cut back brush and a spark it threwironically began the blaze that clearing the brush was intended toprevent.

This fire was said to have been caused by a person burningthings in a barrell at a private hunting camp. No one has beennamed, but this mishap turned nightmare could turn into a financialliabilty approaching two million dollars. The fire may grow to30,000 acres and will go down as one of the largest ever in theSilicon Valley area.

Today the heat will be at a high for the week, which means that thesmoke will continue to accumulate, firefighters will still contendwith extreme conditions and the fire will have no natural incentiveto stop. When will it be contained? No one knows, but theyhave a long way to go.

Rain would be good right about now.

Fighting Fire With … Wine

April 25, 2007

wine pouringOne of my favorite Los Gatos stories, or series of stories, was of mountain vintners who fought fire with wine.

That’s right. The as the fires raged, water ran out, so they used the wine to fight the fires.

That might seem shocking initially  – after all, it’s the loss of a year’s work. But if the vines were consumed by fire, it could take 20 years to get them back to their previous level of productivity.

And can you imagine how the townsfolk felt when the Los Gatos Creek ran red from Cabernet or Merlot or Claret? They probably thought it was the end of the world!

I think it is in line with the entrepenurial spirit of our valley that even in fighting fires, these folks were truly thinking outside the box.  They were willing to try something offbeat to protect the future.

Last Sunday was Earth Day.  And it got me to thinking about what we can do. . . .

I know that we in Los Gatos can help create innovative solutions to ecological problems.  Sometimes the answer is right in front of us and we only have to be thinking differently to recognize it.  The townsfolk care about solar energy and other conservation approaches.  “Fighting fire with wine” was a great concept that worked – twice.   I think it’s time for the creativity of Los Gatos to emerge to help solve the problems of the land in a new era.  What are the solutions to today’s environmental crises that are at our fingertips but we’re just not recognizing yet?