26 October 2012

Carbon Canyon Fire History: The 1929 Olinda Blaze

With hot, dry, windy Santa Ana conditions making their usual Fall appearance and the fire threat elevated in our region and, keeping in mind the interesting work done by the local group Hills for Everyone in documenting in map form the fire history of Carbon Canyon, here is the first in a series of posts mining the Los Angeles Times for articles on major fire events in the Canyon.

The earliest found is from 14 November 1929 and Santa Ana conditions were blamed for brush fires in several San Diego County locations with specific mentioned also made about "Shifting Winds Saved Olinda from Flames."

This short article noted that "Five hundred residents of Olinda today were thankful for the vagaries of a shifting wind which late yesterday stopped a sweeping fire that for several hours had threatened the community with destuction."

Showing just how primitive firefighting was eighty plus years ago, the piece went on to note that "More than 1200 men hastily recruited from the oil fields and surrounding communities had found it impossible to stop the blaze."

The conflagration started, it was reported, "on the Ed Gaines ranch in Carbon Canyon," this being the location of Olinda Village today, and it was noted that this was "a slight distance from La Vida Hot [actually, Mineral] Springs, a resort community."  The fire than roared westward for 4 1/2 miles "and was at the back yard of Olinda, when late in the evening the wind swung squarely about, halting its progress."

The blaze was said to have consumed some 5,000 acres "of watershed," which seems to indicate that it burned along the Carbon [Canyon] Creek and, perhaps the Soquel Canyon Creek, area on its way over towards Olinda.  Eight oil derricks, a small house and a powerhouse were destroyed on the leases of General Petroleum (three derricks and the powerhouse), Shell Oil (two derricks), Fullerton Oil (two derricks), and Chanslor-Canfield-Midway, also called CCMO (one derrick.)

In addition, before the wind shifted, "several hundred pumping wells were directly in the path of the blaze" and "also a number of large storage tanks were threatened for several hours."

It is worth noting that just about 80 years later within days of the 1929 blaze, a similar fortuitous circumstance came along in the Freeway Complex Fire.  In mid-November 2008, that conflagration, which laid waste 30,000 acres, had two major origins--just off the 91 Freeway and then heading north through Chino Hills State Park--and an oil field at Olinda near the Olinda-Alpha Landfill.

Sleepy Hollow residents, evacuated for three long nights as the firestorm threatened the community, returned to experience little damage, although a few homes (notably the Manely Friends stable in the Brea side just east of the old La Vida property) were burned to the west.

It was related that a firefighter from the Highland area near San Bernardino told a Sleepy Hollow denizen that he and his crewmates were on the line facing massive walls of flame and were preparing to spray retardant foam on houses and the retreat from the line because there was no way for them to stop the conflagration.

And, then:  the wind shifted.  It moved in a direction away from the houses and the community and headed elsewhere to the east.  Strange how history repeats itself.

Of course, firefighting planning, logistics, equipment and personnel are all far superior now to what they were even two decades ago, much less eight, but the threat of devastating fire is still there and, if the wind shifts the wrong way, all of the preparation and apparatuses in place may not be enough to stop the destruction of fire.

Folks in 1929 were lucky and quite a few in 2008 were, too.

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