On a bucolic late-summer day, a small plume of smoke was spotted against an overcast cloud ceiling, emanating from a ridge high above Truckee, somewhere near the new Interstate 80 freeway. It was a Saturday afternoon, August the 20th of 1960, and countless Tahoe vacationers were loading up the family wagons for the trek back to the Bay Area and home. If they’d gassed their cars up by that hour, they stood a chance, but a slim one. If not, they were probably still sitting at Kings Beach or Tahoe City or South Shore on the following Tuesday morning.
The small smoke column above Truckee and Donner Lake grew with phenomenal intensity, spreading at its base and moving to the east at a speed fast enough to “crown” across the treetops over the earliest firemen on the scene, forcing them to retreat at a virtual dead-run, in some cases leaving their tools, and at least one Caterpillar dozer behind. The new freeway was closed almost immediately to preserve it for fire equipment – most of which were the on-road variety with few brush trucks capable of getting to the gnarly terrain of the fire’s perimeter, which was enlarging exponentially above the highway toward the town of Verdi. I recall leaving Kings Beach with a truckload of diesel fuel drums and being slowed to 15 miles an hour five miles south of Truckee by the heavy smoke lying over the Brockway Shortcut (Highway 267.) The smoke soon engulfed the Lake Tahoe basin.
At 4:15 p.m. the power went out, and not just in Truckee and Donner Lake; the outage reached from the state line as far east as Carlin and Battle Mountain, to Yerington and Hawthorne, and naturally, Sparks, Carson City, Minden, Gardnerville and Reno. Basically, the northern half of Nevada was in darkness as evening fell that Saturday.
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The fire effort was legendary, with firefighters arriving hourly from distant points in the west, cutting lines similar to the effort last week on the Martis fire but without modern protective clothing, the heavy-lift helicopters and air tankers overhead, the handheld communications and on-site meteorological advances. Few were spared; gawkers stopping along the adjoining roads found themselves with a shovel in their hands conscripted to building a line.
Cloaked in darkness, we all fumbled our way through grocery stores with no refrigeration for provisions – in the store or at home – unsure how long the outage would continue. Harrah’s cancelled Jack Benny’s show at Stateline (that showroom then only eight months old!} We conserved fuel in our cars, as the service stations were out of business, the fire agencies all raising Cain about some operators’ efforts to pump by hand from underground tanks. This newspaper, actually two papers then, the Gazette and the Journal, relied on a heavy on-site generator at their building on West Second Street, and got newspapers onto the street almost on schedule, keeping residents and the tourists held hostage by the fuel shortage apprised of information about the fire and the future. (A major problem was created by the huge population of tourists who would normally have left for home, but were now left stranded in Reno, Sparks and the Lake Tahoe basin and requiring food and housing.)
One radio station in Sparks and another in Reno were able to stay on the air, their audience confined to listeners with battery radios or those willing to run their cars. The Reno airport continued to function, albeit hampered by the smoke that darkened the city to virtual nighttime visibility – the airport managers mustered up smoke pots, used liberally as warning devices in the late 1950s around construction sites, and lined them up to form approach lanes and runway and taxiway lighting. Oceans Eleven fell dark at the Majestic Theater.
The Wednesday morning Journal reported that power had been restored to almost all Sierra Pacific customers all over Nevada (the paper had carried the news the day before that a 120,000 kilovolt line in the Truckee/Donner Lake vicinity had been an early casualty of the embryonic fire on that Saturday afternoon, almost immediately followed by 13 poles burning out from under a 60,000 KV line nearby.) Few, if any, other significant structures were damaged by the fire.
After a long week, the fire was controlled, later confined, and then out, at least to the casual observer. California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, federal and tribal agencies had been on the fire line for the week it took to control it, then remained in the burn area until the first snows fell in 1960, searching for hot spots, still finding some even in the cooling fall temperatures.
It was named the Donner Ridge fire – August 20th, 1960. Was it bigger than the Rim (Yosemite) Fire? Possibly not in terms of acreage, but in terms of disruption to a huge number of residents, tourists and the economy — and the heartbreak of ravaging the natural beauty and creating a scar that’s still visible 57 years later — at 43,000 acres it was certainly one of our area’s major forest fires. And how was it caused?
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[Epilogue: The cause was eventually determined to be a spark off the blade of a bulldozer working on the new Interstate 80 high on the mountain above Truckee. This column originally appeared in the RGJ on the Saturday following the nearly-disastrous Martis Creek Fire, starting on Fathers Day, 2001]