TRUCKEE, Calif. — One of the region’s biggest wildfires started with a small, ordinary act, a lesson burned into local minds that still holds true today.
It was the middle of August, 1960, and construction workers were blazing the new Interstate 80 across Donner Summit.
Road crews burned slash and debris as they went, and a few embers settled into the furrows of cracked granite alongside the road. Then the winds picked up, carrying the sparks up the wooded slope north of the interstate, below what is now Tahoe Donner.
And on Aug. 20 — 50 years ago today — a water skier skimming along Donner Lake looked up and saw smoke. That was the beginning of the Donner Ridge fire, Truckee’s biggest wildland blaze, scorching almost 45,000 acres all the way to Nevada.
Norm Sayler, local historian and longtime local, happened to be on Donner Lake that day too.
“We were all on the beach when all of the sudden a fire started — and it went from nothing to huge in a matter of hours,” Sayler said.
Fire crews were spread thin across the state with wildfires already blazing in Southern California, then split in half locally by the Volcano fire just over the crest near Forresthill, said Joanne Roubique, the current ranger of the Truckee Ranger District.
The Sierra Sun and Truckee Republican — the newspaper’s name at the time — reported on Aug. 25 that 3,200 men fought the fire, including “Indian Firefighting Experts,” Navy, Marines, National Guard and prison inmates.
“It was the first time, or one of the first times, they used helicopters to move resources and to determine where the fire was going,” Roubique said.
With winds whipping up to 60 or 70 mph, there wasn’t much crews or equipment could do to stop the firestorm as it advanced east toward Verdi.
“I remember from Hobart Mills watching it come from the west. It was full-blown and full-grown. Trees were bursting into flames,” said Joe Straub, a Truckee Fire Protection District volunteer and board member for more than 40 years.
Straub wasn’t quite 16 at the time, so he couldn’t volunteer to fight it. He and his family were living in a boxcar home that Southern Pacific Railroad was ready to pull down the tracks if the fire changed direction.
“It was pretty hairy for a while. We didn’t know if it would go into Truckee or not,” he said.
Firefighters were able to stop the fire in one place — bulldozing a line to protect the historic Donner Party camp at Alder Creek, according to the Sierra Sun’s account.
On Aug. 25, the Sun reported: “Dana Cox, information officer for the forest service, said this morning that by noon the Donner Ridge holocaust would be 100 percent contained if present conditions continue.”
Roubique, reading a forest service report from the fire, said it was officially called under control Aug. 28.
“In the end it was about 20 miles long and five miles wide at its widest,” Roubique said.
The Sun reported a perimeter stretching 70 miles, with flames “within a few feet of several Donner Lake homes and businesses,” missing Truckee (what they called downtown Truckee at the time) by 2.5 miles, “skirting” Hobart Mills and destroying the buildings at the E. E. Prayen Ranch.
The fire left 27 injured — and thankfully, none dead.
The 44,800-acre blaze scorched $3.5 million in trees, according to the Sun, amounting to 150 million board-feet of lumber. The cost of the firefighting efforts was reported at $650,000.
“The Donner Ridge forest fire started here, high in California’s Sierras, on August 20 of 1960. Now this is all that remains of 39,000 acres of some of America’s finest timberland, recreation land and watershed,” said Stan Atkinson in 1960, a television reporter for Sacramento TV station KCRA at the time.
“This is what we call the black harvest.”
The Sierra Sun reported officials said it would take at least 50 years to replace the trees lost in the fire.
“We do have a forest back 50 years later, but not the same forest,” said Roubique, adding that the U.S. Forest Service searched far and wide for trees to replant. “Almost 45,000 acres is a lot to reforest, so they gathered seedlings from all over the country — from the Southeast, the Midwest — today we know that’s not a good idea.”
Those trees, used in warmer or wetter climates, didn’t thrive, and the reforesting took a few tries.
The Fiberboard Corporation, a timber company that owned what is now the Tahoe Donner subdivision, salvaged 17.7 million board-feet of logged timber in the fall and the following spring, then left the land to its own devices, said Bill Houdyschell, Tahoe Donner’s forester today, and the brush quickly took over.
The Tahoe Donner Association began actively managing the forests of the subdivision in 1990, thinning the brush, creating fuel breaks and planting trees.
“The trees have grown back very slowly,” Houdyschell said. “Mother Nature is doing a good job on the north slopes — it’s just the south slopes that aren’t doing as well.”
And it’s those south-facing slopes above Interstate 80 that have caught fire repeatedly since, sometimes in the same place as the Donner Ridge fire, he said — recently in 1994, 2003 and 2007.
“That’s an area of our concern, why we keep doing those projects on the southern boarder,” Houdyschell said. “The freeway is our Achilles’ heal with the prevailing winds running up the hill.”
But each time, the fires have slowed where Tahoe Donner’s foresters have worked, giving firefighters a place to stop the flames advancing toward the 6,000 lots that make up Tahoe Donner.
Still, if the conditions today were like Aug. 20, 1960, with 60 mph winds, Houdyschell said he doesn’t know what would happen.
“We’ve all chosen to live in a place where fire is part of the natural ecosystem. It’s a frightening part, but fire is going to happen again — it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when,” said Roubique. “So the question is: What can I do to protect my property and my neighborhood? We each have to do our part.”
She said defensible space and smart practices like clearing pine needles from the roof help minimize the impacts of a wildfire, and give firefighters a better chance at stopping it.
“As good as all the fire agencies are, there is more here than any of them can tackle without the community’s help,” Roubique said.
This story was originally published in the Sierra Sun in 2010.