No Surrender from Hillside Women

Napa Register, Napa, CA, Summer, 1974
By Bee Laurence, Women's Editor

What to do 'til the pros arrive.

Oppressive heat hangs over hillsides in Napa Valley as summer progresses, searing underbrush, scorching the grass. The sudden sharp crackle of leaves sends a tingle along nerves of the hillside dwellers.

Relax. It's only a deer making his way to the creek.

The crackle of fire is what they fear.

Fire can devastate a hillside in the space of minutes, stripping the earth of foliage and homes alike. Residents, living under the constant threat, are running scared.

But Dry Creek Road neighbors are doing something about it. They remember the 1945 fire, the heartbreaking efforts to bring it under control, only to have it flare up again. Insufficient water, communications breakdowns, lack of organization, training.

From this heartbreak developed the Dry Creek Lokoya Fire Department, an organization of volunteers who work with the Department of Forestry. Now the organization is opening its ranks to the members' wives and even their sons and daughters. At a time of fire, every bit of help counts.

Bea Henke and Ginny Feckner are members of the newly-formed women's group and their daily lives are almost totally involved with the new responsibility.

To be effective, volunteers must be available when the dreaded call comes. The women spend most of their time at home.

Fires are reported first to the Forestry Service and then to the nearest district office where the dispatcher must find someone to handle the trucks. Most of the District volunteers are working men, not available during the day. The truck sits. When that phone rings in the Forestry office, men are on the way, but they have an enormous area to cover. Hundreds of acres can burn before they get there.

So the women are learning to drive the trucks - not an easy task on an old model with 8 or 10 gears to operate - and to work the gauges and the pumps. They are learning the basics of fighting a fire: what kind of fire, for instance: brush, buildings, equipment?

They are experiencing the effects of heat and how to control the hose nozzle to cool themselves at the same time they spray the flames.

"I never saw magnesium burn before," Ginny said after the first practice session. "Don't ever put water on it; it explodes. It burns white hot and the fumes are poisonous. You have to use dry powder extinguishers."

They are learning first aid and how to use the airpack which saves them from the smoke inside a burning building.

They paint the block numbers on the road ("the city kept black-topping over them; they thought they were road race numbers") to make it easier for firefighters to locate the endangered area.

Bea, a former map draftsman, is mapping the entire district, marking homes of each resident, noting who the neighbors are, keeping track of the property when residents move or others buy in.

"On a minor fire, we let the men fight it," Bea explained. Her husband, George, is fire district director. "A major fire like eight years ago when all of Napa County was on fire, we'd all fight it."

Both men and women work under the direction of trained personnel in the Department of Forestry.

"Our primary mission is fire prevention," Bea notes. Newsletters distributed to members stress this: "The Forestry people are the real pros. Their fast response with water, bulldozers, helicopters, bombers and know-how are just invaluable."

The Henkes, the Feckners and their neighbors live in Nature's wonderland, Ginny up near the road where the deer visit every evening to eat the roses, where raccoons come to call; Bea down by the creek, "an oasis in the summer," Ginny notes with envy. "It can be steaming up here but it's a lush island paradise down there." Bea communes with her flowers and with the squirrels who come to dine. "Last year I had 10 squirrels I called by name."

But the ever present danger of fire has dulled the luster of Nature's gem. The residents are getting testy. They maintain a constant watch against trespassers: the hunter, the fisherman, the nature lover out for a hike, the urbanite seeking respite from his five day a week city trap. One of them might drop a match or a lighted cigarette or build a fire for cooking.

The area is posted, but houses are spaced with dense woods between. The visitor makes a path.

"We both do a lot of police work," the two agreed.

Then there are rattlesnakes and falling trees and wood to haul and Ginny rescuing motorists who don't make that curve outside her home. "It's banked wrong. Someday, somebody's going to get killed."

"It's the unexpected that happens up here," Bea said quietly. "You have to learn to do for yourself...you can't call for help. If you can't be self-sufficient, you don't survive."

Paradise has its price.