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.