No. 44 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal
“Catch on fire and people will come for miles to see you burn.”
— John Wesley
Fire. Our ancient friend. Or immortal enemy. In my lifetime, just about every California house had a fireplace that was actually used to build a fire. In my father’s time, the fireplace and stove warmed the house from the chilling bite of winter. Meals were cooked on wood-burning stoves. There’s a local elementary school in Canyon Country named after Leona Cox. A young widow, she started working as a janitor at Sulphur Springs Elementary in the early 1920s. Part of her job in the colder days was to get to school at 5 a.m. and start fires in the stoves so the few small rooms would be warm and ready for students. Another janitor, in 1939, set Newhall Elementary ablaze with his morning stove ritual.
Decade after decade, we’ve covered fires and the tens of thousands who have fled them. Recently, the Tick Fire caused freeways to close and thousands to evacuate.
Some fires are smaller, more personal. On far-too-regular a basis, The Signal has reported the small tragedy. Sometimes, it’s some lone soul smoking in bed. Sometimes, the cause is more profoundly stupid — or confoundingly bizarre.
Watching for the demon
Long before 1921 when silent screen star William S. Hart bought the Babcock Ranch on the hill in Downtown Newhall, the upper part of the property was used as a fire lookout tower, one of several in the SCV. The Signal noted the jim dandy of them all was atop Oat Mountain, where an epic tower stood.
“Peeping” George celebrated his 11th year on the job. George Nelson started in 1955 as the live-in forest watcher high atop a wooden tower on the 3,800-foot peak of Oat Mountain. He spent the days in an 11-foot-by-11-foot cage atop a lookout tower. Besides “Peeping,” George had the nickname of “Geronimo,” given to him by firefighting friends. In his youth, Nelson was a movie extra and stuntman where he often played an attacking Indian. Also, George was part Apache. He was also a rancher in Tick Canyon. He leased land on Oat Mountain and sort of double-dipped, taking his herds to Oat to graze while he watched for budding fires. George had another nickname: “Dirty Old.” He wasn’t a very good housekeeper.
The county’s original fire tower was built in 1927 at a cost of $2,885. Victor Lopez was the first watcher. Made of wood, it stood 65 feet tall. It was rebuilt in steel in 1937 and improved in 1957. Lightning frequently struck the steel tower and sometimes, an unscheduled bear would try and climb the ladder to visit George. Besides that, wind gusts sometimes approaching 100 mph would rattle the tower and anyone in it. Fire watchers sometimes had to hang on for dear life as the tower swayed dangerously in the winds. That lookout tower closed in 1972.
The Signal detailed, in 1926, how fighting fires was partially the job of the U.S. Army. When an Oat Mountain lookout would spot smoke, he’d call down to the closest Forest Department stations. From there, an Army motorcycle would literally race to assemble help.
Up until the early 1970s, we were still using mountain towers to look for fires. I imagine there must have been great simplicity — and great complications — in Mary Stahl’s life — at least for five months out of the year. The 52-year-old Castaic woman spent nearly half her life on a lonely mountaintop as a solitary fire spotter for the Forest Service. Well. She wasn’t completely alone. She lived in a little box atop a steel tower at the Warm Springs lookout with her dog, Scout. Interestingly, she was happily married when she first took the job and mother of two boys, 5 and 11. They would visit on weekends with their dad.
Today, we have an ever-improving arsenal of firefighting techniques, from drones to water-dropping planes. Way back when, men in the thousands would basically just hack out fire breaks.
Of course, just because you put the word, “scientific,” in front of something, doesn’t make it smart. In 1934, The Signal noted that the Forest Service was looking into employing cannons that fired giant cannisters as far as 20 miles into hot zones. These huge bombs would destroy all oxygen in an area, thus, helping to quell a blaze. One veteran fireman drolly noted: “The firefighting crews at or near the fire might find this inconvenient.”
In June 1921, Newhall took delivery of their brand new “fire trailer.” It was a horse-drawn wagon that carried eight 10-gallon water cans and six 3-gallon chemical cans, plus “… a generous supply of firefighting tools.” Locals passed the hat to buy the wagon, which was stored next to the Butler building with the old fire hose wagon and manual pump. When Downtown Newhall nearly burned to the ground in the 1920s, The Signal scolded the community. Seems when volunteers rolled out the wagon, the canvas hoses were so old, not only did water squirt out from dozens of holes, so did moths.
In 1922, The Signal noted that by law, all farmers were required to carry two large chemical extinguishers on their bailers, harvesters, threshers and tractors at all times.
It’s funny — and I don’t mean that as in humorous — how stupidity doesn’t seem to evolve out of us. Back in 1923, this paper posted both a story and editorial on a proclamation by the Automobile Club of Southern California. Back then, AAA was in charge of speed limits, many road laws and posting highway signs. AAA noted that firefighters were having problems getting out to brush fires in the SCV because as soon as someone saw smoke, they’d jump in their car to catch a peek. Our local narrow and mostly dirt roads would become jammed and firefighters couldn’t reach the blaze. Fistfights would even break out between the firefighters and looky-loos.
The Signal had some sobering numbers for locals in 1945. We had a ragtag group of flame busters, some county, some forest service, many volunteer. Figures to build our very own county fire station were sobering — in the low six figures. We’d finally get that station in 1957 at a cost of $124,535. Local dairyman Pierre Davies was the fire chief.
By the way. In 1936, Davies was just starting out as the local fire warden. His barn burned to the ground when a worker didn’t quite start a gasoline-powered pump.
Strange tales of the red beast
The oddest things can cause a fire. Before the 1970s, one of the main causes of brush fires was hawks. They’d land on high-tension electric wires, get electrocuted, catch on fire, fall to the brush and start a fire.
During World War II, the Army (ours) almost burned down the Hart Mansion. It was August and 108 degrees. No humidity. They were firing artillery shells for practice toward the actor’s castle and started a brush fire. Fortunately, it was stopped early.
In September 1984, The Signal noted how a woman nearly burned down her house — with iced tea. She was brewing sun tea on a late summer scorcher. The sun used the glass jar as a magnifying glass and set her wooden picnic table on fire and so it spread.
Same week, on a more epic scale, we almost destroyed Earth.
A softball-sized hole bored through one of the furnaces at Thatcher Glass and 500 pounds of molten glass started melting its way toward the Indian Ocean on the other side of the globe. Firefighters took turns braving inside temperatures of more than 150 degrees, trying to douse the growing lava. The liquid glass reached temperatures of more than 2,700 degrees.
Prior to the 1960s, gasoline was a miracle chemical, used in everything from medicine (in small “Cure-all” doses) to household cleaning. One Placerita Canyon housewife had a bucket of the flammable liquid and was using it to take out stains on her husband’s clothes. Unfortunately, she kept the bucket of gas on a lit stove. It blew up the house and sent the woman through the front porch door onto the lawn. Neighbors rushed over to find her like Sylvester the Cat, smoldering, bruised and miraculously unhurt.
There’re many tall tales about the dedication of golfers. In 1966, a foursome at Big Valencia continued to play as several fire engines raced by to put out a brush fire next to the course. Several firefighters battling the blaze slipped and fell in the hills on lost golf balls. None were injured.
One of the weirdest fires involved our own local sheriff’s captain, E.C. Marty. It was in the early days of World War II. Marty’s garage burned to the ground. Cause? Rats. Somehow, rats had chewed on matches that ignited the wooden structure. Total loss? $500. Darn thing? ANOTHER fire, this one back in 1925, was started up San Francisquito Canyon by rats chewing on matches at the Raggio Ranch. It started a huge fire that took four days to control.
Firefighters can suffer from the strangest of accidents. In 1962, poor Battalion Chief Stan Barlow was standing in front of what he thought was a routine garage fire on Newhall Avenue. The darn garage blew up. Seems like the owner had been storing a significant amount of gunpowder inside. Barlow had burns on one hand and arm, but otherwise — and really, when you’re injured even with a darn hangnail, it’s never “otherwise” — he was pronounced all right.
Local firefighter Tom Fullerton in 1962 was hosing down a burning couch in Newhall. It had been abandoned behind a shopping center and someone set it on fire. The couch started firing at the blaze battler. Seems the sofa owner had dropped several shotgun shells between the cushions. Tom was taken to the hospital to have shot taken from his legs.
There are so many stories.
• In 1943, an Acme beer truck overturned on the Ridge Route, starting a small fire. The driver used the contents of the bottles to douse the blaze. Good thing he wasn’t transporting vodka.
• In 1980, an elephant up Soledad Canyon started a fire that caused $40,000 in damage. The trained pachyderm, housed at Noel Marshall’s wild animal compound, was goofing around, playfully bouncing in the elephant barn, when he broke through a fence and leaned against a big propane tank. The tank caught fire and so did the elephant barn. No critters were hurt but Bill Dow, a worker and photographer there, had his lab burn down. Adding insult to injury, the following week, Bill was mauled by a lion.
• After losing part of his ranch to the 1928 St. Francis Dam break, movie star Harry Carey’s house burned to the ground four years later when a water pump exploded. Harry also lost the only copy of the complete novel he had just finished writing.
• The effects of the great 1960 Placerita Fire were felt for years. For one thing, almost all of Melody Ranch burned. Elvis Presley, who was there on a photo shoot, manned a bucket brigade and helped save the little house where W.C. Fields shot “My Little Chickadee.” One after-effect was a dramatic local increase in cow miscarriages and a drastic reduction in milk production. It was 115 degrees here the day of the fire, with 60 mph winds. The fire burned 30,000 acres, dozens of firefighters were injured and two killed.
• In July 1979, we had a 4,500-acre blaze in Castaic and Rye Canyon. Hundreds of firefighters battled flames in 105-degree heat. But the actual scene was surrealistic. Tens of thousands of grasshoppers madly popping in the flames. A bobcat leapt out of smoke, ran up a tree, collapsed and fell to the ground, dead. There were the birds, tired from the flight and heat who landed on people’s arms and heads for rest. The fire was started by an inmate at Wayside Honor Rancho.
• In June 1961, three Hawaiian tourists, using a 20mm anti-tank gun with tracer shells, started a 300-acre blaze that took hundreds of firefighters to douse. Besides the $100 fine for each, the Hawaiians were presented with a $38,500 bill for putting out the Seco Canyon fire.
• We covered one of the most spectacular fires in our history. In August 1944, the Newhall Refinery blew up. Tanker trucks, holding bins, 25,000 barrels of various petroleum products, all went kah-blooey. A spectacular flame — not smoke, but flame — rose a mile into the night sky.
• By April 1953, five people were burned alive in separate fires. One was the local spinstress and telephone operator, Holly Hubbard. Holly became a human torch, running down Sierra Highway after her ancient Crosley car broke an axle and the fuel tank, then poor Holly, caught fire.
• Before it was a tony enclave for millionaires, the MacMillan Ranch in Sand Canyon was just that — a ranch. Cattle, hogs, horses, chickens and turkeys were raised there. Years prior to this February 1962 blaze, The Signal reported on a huge fire that killed thousands of hogs and literally exploded the newly built concrete feeding pens. The 1962 fire in the MacMillan turkey barn cremated 5,300 week-old turkeys. Damages were: $5,000 for the barn; $3,000 for the heaters; $7,000 for a home trailer parked next to the barn, and $7,000 for the turkeys.
Yes. Twice is enough
The Mighty Signal has been guilty of more than their fair share of well-duh Don’t Play With Matches editorials.
In 1926, Signal Editor A.B. “Dad” Thatcher wrote a succinct op-ed piece. Here it is in its entirety: “This is Fire Prevention Week. Watch us put out the first fire we see. Next week, we’ll let ’er burn.”
Twice, The Mighty Signal has burned to the ground. When we were not even a year old in 1919, this newspaper rented space in the long-gone Swall Hotel in Downtown Newhall. The hotel burned to the ground along with the World Corporate Headquarters of The Mighty Us.
Then, in 1969, the Newhall family had to look for new headquarters when their operation went up in flames.
Annoying wags like to re-moo old sayings, like — “Bad things come in threes.”
We’d also like to sigh philosophically and wish the only fires The Signal will be covering in the future will be those in our readers’ eyes and hearts.
Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, novelist, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal and has earned 119 major writing awards. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 45 out of 52 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.