Looking into Napa's Past and Present

The Register, Napa, Calif., Saturday, Nov. 29, 1975
By Louis Ezettie

Napa County has an expertly trained, all female rural fire fighting unit based in the Napa Redwoods section and embraced in the Dry Creek-Lokoya Fire District.

Thirteen members, their ages ranging from 20 to 52 years and including grandmothers, mothers and single members, formed the group in October, 1972, and have received wide praise for their efficient fire fighting results. All are residents of the district.

The women's group is in answer to a need for more firefighters during daytime hours when many men members are away at their places of business or employment.

Rigidly trained in firefighting techniques under direction of the Napa County Forestry Rangers Service, the members meet regularly every Thursday to practice and perfect their training. The man volunteers, who were put through the same course of training, hold their practice sessions every Saturday.

Three fire trucks and other up-to-date fire fighting equipment is available for use of the men and women volunteers. Trucks are stationed at three different location in the district. When a fire breaks out in the redwoods section and is reported to forestry headquarters, a ranger on call duty at the time immediately sets off a siren whose piercing tone can be heard throughout the redwoods area.

The Dry Creek-Lokoya district has retained a membership of about 250 since its organization in 1945. However, many members are absentee property owners and others who are unable to take an active part in the fire fighting service.

A need for formation of a well trained volunteer fire fighting organization in rural areas was emphatically emphasized back in September, 1923, when a disastrous fire broke out in Niebaum Canyon northwest of Rutherford when a rancher was in the act of smoking out a swarm of bees. Fanned by a strong north wind, the conflagration spread over the hill range into Sonoma County, leveling two schoolhouses, a number of residences and farm building in Napa County, most of the business section of Boyes Springs, 20 cottages at Fetters Springs and sections of Sonoma Villa and Caliente Park in Sonoma County. The big and widely familiar Fetters Hotel was saved by heroic efforts of regular and volunteer firemen.

To add to the already bad fire situation, another wind-driven blaze erupted in Gordon Valley and Wooden Valley in the eastern section of Napa County. The Gordon Valley schoolhouse was burned to the ground and the Wooden Valley School was barely saved by the efforts of George and Bill Johnson, brothers of Wooden Valley, who drove their automobile onto the grounds and using wet sacks, extinguished the flames as they licked at the exterior walls of the structure.

A tragic fire in the Atlas Peak area in 1913 claimed the life of a farm woman but her eight-year-old adopted son was spared under unusual circumstances. The woman had entered a dirt cellar that stood mostly above ground surface and had a wooden door. The fire burned through the door and inflicted fatal burns on the woman's body. The son, ironically, had climbed into a fig tree to escape from a wild fox that had entered the premises.

When the fire had subsided, a neighbor, Bert Lytell, a famed actor, drove to the farm and discovered the woman's body and frightened boy clinging to a limb in the tree.

Lytell and his wife, Evelyn Vaughan, owned a large estate more recently known as the Mead Ranch where they entertained theatrical personalities widely known on the American stage. The Lytells often appeared at Napa's Main Street opera house.

The need for a well trained volunteer fire fighting organization was spurred by the wide-spread and disastrous Napa-Sonoma County conflagration of 1923. The Dry Creek-Lokoya organization had its start when a half dozen property owners formed a group to carry out fire prevention and fire fighting work by placing buckets and sacks at various locations. But when some buckets were riddled by target shooters they gave up the plan. Their next move was to contact every property owner in the area, including several doctors and lawyers of the Bay Area who had summer homes in the redwoods. Samuel Elston was named chairman, Lewis Holzreiter fire chief, and Mrs. Ruby Holzreiter (wife of Lewis) secretary-treasurer. Present fire chief is William Beers, with Fred Held as assistant chief.

At the time of the 1923 fire that started in Niebaum Canyon, Ernest (Buck) Erickson was forest ranger.

Seeing the danger and little hope of heading off the blaze in the face of a 70 mile an hour wind, Erickson put in a call to Mare Island for assistance and 38 sailors were promptly dispatched here and rendered valuable aid.

The danger of serious brush and grass fires in the county has been greatly diminished because of the modern equipment, coupled with airplane and helicopter assistance and efficient communication system, now employed in the fire fighting. Byron Carniglia is current head of the Napa County Forestry Service.