City Beat

Rough fire, the prequel: A great fire raged near Sequoia-Kings Canyon 60 years ago

The front page of the Sept. 4, 1955, edition of The Fresno Bee detailing a Sierra Nevada wildfire that imperiled the community of Miramonte. (Turns out, Miramonte was largely saved after it appeared, on deadline Sept. 3, that it would be destroyed.)
The front page of the Sept. 4, 1955, edition of The Fresno Bee detailing a Sierra Nevada wildfire that imperiled the community of Miramonte. (Turns out, Miramonte was largely saved after it appeared, on deadline Sept. 3, that it would be destroyed.)

The central San Joaquin Valley’s own version of Minutemen (and women) answered the call exactly 60 years ago during another terrible Sierra Nevada fire.

Citizens – and convicts – helped save Miramonte in the Great Fire of 1955.

Here’s the story, a complement to news coverage of the current Rough fire that appears to be finally coming under control.

First, let me explain how I came upon the story.

The Bee keeps bound volumes of past editions in our “morgue” on the third floor. I’m working on a story about high school architecture, with a focus on the old Lindsay High campus (blog to come in mid-October).

I head to the morgue in spare moments for research. I recently opened The Bee’s September 1955 volume. What I saw made me forget things like auditorium design.

Sept. 1, 1955, was a Thursday. The following Monday was Labor Day. Everyone was gearing up for the three-day weekend.

But it was unusually hot throughout California. The temperature hit 109 degrees in Los Angeles, 12 degrees higher than the previous record high for that date.

“Two major brush fires broke out in San Gabriel and the San Fernando Valley,” reported The Bee (then an afternoon paper except on Sunday, therefore able to publish breaking news from earlier in the day).

Things got hotter on Sept. 2. Los Angeles hit 110, the city’s highest temperature in September since the keeping of official records. Paso Robles hit 112.

Fires east of Los Angeles destroyed 12 homes. More than 6,000 chickens had been roasted alive. Fresno’s high was a record 108.

Page 1 of the Sept. 3 Bee headlined: “Worst Sierra Fire Rages Uncontrolled In Forest.”

The Bee’s Karl Kidder, reporting from Dunlap east of Fresno, covered the story: “One of the worst forest fires in recent years is roaring out of control as some 500 fire fighters and many pieces of equipment battled desperately to halt the flames reaching the Sequoia-Kings Canyon National Parks.”

It wasn’t clear how the fire started. High temperatures and low humidity made the cause irrelevant at that point.

“It looks bad, real bad,” said deputy state forester Cecil E. Metcalf. “So far it doesn’t look like it will get into the parks, but at this stage of the game your guess is as good as mine.”

The Bee ran another story on Sept. 3 about fires in Southern California. Fourteen boys from a forestry camp run by a local probation department had been hosing down grass as part of the firefighting effort. They had been caught by flames.

Five boys – one 16 years old, the others age 17 – were killed.

Then came the dramatic moment in the fire east of Fresno.

Sept. 4 was a Sunday. The Bee typically went to press late on Saturday for the Valley edition. The presses could be held very early Sunday morning for the Fresno-area edition if important news broke.

That’s what happened.

The Bee’s top Page 1 story on Sept. 4 reported that the fire was out of control. Miramonte, an unincorporated community of perhaps 100 structures, was all but doomed.

According to The Bee’s Kidder, Mid Valley Fire District officials said that 20 firetrucks and 100 volunteers as of 11 p.m. Saturday “were making a stand outside Miramonte in a desperate attempt to save the community from advancing flames.”

But several new paragraphs had been inserted, clearly at the last minute before the paper went to press, above Kidder’s story.

“The Fresno County sheriff’s office early today (Sunday, Sept. 4) reported the tiny Sierra community of Miramonte was destroyed by the forest fire which has been devastating the mountain area since Friday,” said the first of the new paragraphs.

In the second of the new paragraphs, sources had told The Bee that “houses and stores in Miramonte were burned to the ground.”

Back to Kidder’s story.

“This is the most heartbreaking fight I have encountered in a long time,” Metcalf said. “You get a line all set and are holding the fire fine, then the wind comes up and blows the blame thing over your head. I don’t know what else human beings can do.”

The crews elsewhere in the fire now included 24 Zuni Indians, specialists at fighting fires in such terrain, who had been flown in from New Mexico.

There was bad news and good news in The Bee of Monday, Sept. 5.

The fire now covered a 20-mile front. More than 1,000 firefighters were now engaged.

But Miramonte, for the most part, had survived the night.

It was a near-run thing, The Bee reported.

Miramonte residents throughout Saturday had been grabbing a few things from home and fleeing to safer quarters in Badger or Dunlap.

“Everyone here was very sensible about leaving in time,” said Mrs. Shelley Keiser, a year-around resident who lived at Deer Crossing, about a half-mile up the road. “My husband stayed to play a hose on the roof of our home, but I just walked around like a lost soul. I said goodby to our home because I didn’t expect to ever see it again.”

At some point late Saturday night, Miramonte was completely ringed by fire.

“At 10 p.m. (Saturday), I wouldn’t have given you 25 cents for the whole community,” said Kyle Jones, postmaster and store owner in Miramonte. “An hour later, I wouldn’t have given you 2 cents for it.”

Jones and Marion Perkovich were thought to be the only two Miramonte residents still in town.

Yet, by 4 a.m. Sunday, Shelley Keiser had been told by fire officials to go home.

“I didn’t believe them,” she said. “But they were right. I did have a home to go back to.”

What happened in those four or five hours, perhaps the darkest in Miramonte’s history?

Kidder tells it best:

“Jones said Miramonte was completely ringed by flames for a few frightening moments. Backfires started near the school, plus the heroic work of scores of prison inmates from five camps, staved off the flames.

 ‘None of us can say enough for those prisoners,’ Jones said. ‘They were wonderful. The backfires they started met the main fire, then the whole thing seemed to ball up and jump over our heads. It took seven cabins further up the canyon.’ 

The Great Fire of 1955 moved on to its ultimate extinction. There was plenty of drama to go.

Firefighters seemed to gain the upper hand, then sudden winds sent the flames out of control again. Grant Grove was threatened. So, too, the General Grant Tree and the Boole Tree.

Indian firefighters from Arizona arrived. More than 2,000 vacationers were told to leave. Congressman B.F. Sisk showed up, promising more money “so things like this can be stopped before they happen.”

But by Sept. 13, the firefighting force was cut to 840 from a high of 1,300. Normal temperatures returned. Other events took over The Bee’s Page 1.

More than 16,000 acres had been burned.

The judgment of Kermit Smith, Fresno County Red Cross disaster chairman, in the wake of the Miramonte miracle best sums up the work of hundreds of men and women throughout the ordeal: “A magnificent job.”

The Bee on Sept. 15 reported that about 300,000 acres of California, from Eureka to San Diego, had been burned during the 1955 fire season. But that was nothing compared to 1945.

More than 500,000 acres throughout the state went up in flames during the last year of World War II.

Finally, there was The Bee’s page 1 of Dec. 24, 1955.

The top story’s headline: “Valley Suffers Big Flood Loss.”

The first paragraph: “Hundreds of families are homeless in the San Joaquin flood area and evacuation of countless others is continuing from Merced County south to Tulare where creeks and rivers have boiled over their banks as the result of one of the heaviest and most sustained storms in half a century.”

The Valley’s men and women of years past – they were made of stern stuff.

George Hostetter: 559-441-6272, @GeorgeHostetter