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From the Files of the Lassen Historical Society: The Terrifying Fire Season of 1926

Air Service F Forest Fire Patrol plane over Oregon in 1924 – Air Force photo

by Susan Couso

In 1924 wildfires had ‘scared the dickens’ out of Lassen County residents as a huge blaze breeched the city limits of Susanville, destroyed property, and threatened the community with even more destruction.

The fire season of 1925 was fairly calm, as no major fires sparked alive in the county, but in 1926 it all began again.

On Friday, June 25th, a wildfire began its march toward Susanville, aided by a stiff wind from the west, and by Sunday the entire town was in danger. Citizens anxiously watched the smoke as it plumed up into the sky and more than 1,000 men rushed to the five-mile-wide fire front to help.

Once again, the lumber mills closed and sent their men to the front to aid in the suppression, and City Manager M. J. Tilley immediately drafted the entire male population of Susanville to help.

Worried city officials called Sacramento for assistance. The State Forest Inspector, A. B. Frost, hurried to his airplane and left Mather Field in Sacramento to aid the local authorities in their assault on the advancing flames.

In just an hour and twenty minutes he was overhead, surveying the scene and formulating a plan of attack. He then landed and met with county and city officials to direct the charge.

The fire roared down the canyon towards town, jumped the Susan River and scorched several buildings before the situation eased. Fortunately, fuel was diminished as the conflagration met the denuded area of the 1924 fire. The town, covered in embers and ashes, was still in dire danger, but with a change in the wind, the threat lessened as the fire was blown back upon itself.

Local citizens uneasily took a small sigh of relief. By about 7:30 in the evening, it was declared ‘under control’, but a force of about 250 men remained on duty to watch for a reprisal from the enemy.

From the San Francisco Examiner, June 26th, 1926

At the same time, fire continued to break out in the area. These included fires in Round Valley, Lassen Lumber & Box Co. facilities at Lasco, the lands five miles southwest of Susanville, and on Wingfield Road.

All through the month of July fires menaced Lassen County. There were fires dispersed throughout the valuable timberlands to the west, south and north. A huge fire, southeast of Milford, lit the night sky with an ominous glow and threatened the entire south county.

Susanville citizens had pretty much figured that the threat had eased since the fire from the west, rushing down the Susan River Canyon, had been stopped.

The California State American Legion Convention was held in Susanville that year, from August 15th – August 19th, and over 5,000 Legionaries and Women’s Auxiliary members had registered.

The town was bursting with visitors and trips were taken through the local forests and up to Eagle Lake to highlight our beautiful county. Many remarks were made and written in newspapers concerning the attractiveness of our area. But things were just about to change.

Northeast of Susanville, a spectacular blaze began on Monday, August 23rd, and spread from Litchfield, through Willow Creek, towards Eagle Lake, northeast towards the Madeline Plains, and then down into the mountains just north of town.

From Susanville, the night sky appeared as scenes of Hell as Roop Mountain disappeared in the flames, and many feared that there would be no way to stop the inferno from reaching the town.

This devastating fire erupted when Lassen County Road Department employee, Charles Hurlbut, built a small campfire while working on Rice Canyon Road. The sparks escaped their designated space and the surrounding foliage was quickly engulfed in flames. A few local men rushed to the site and attempted to halt the blaze, but they were no match for the ‘perfect fire conditions’.

Hurlbut raced to town for help, but there was little to be done. By Tuesday, the fire had crossed the highway on Antelope Mountain and was surging in all directions.

The fire sped through the available fuel, racing like a freight train towards Susanville, at some places advancing a half-mile in three minutes. Besides the valuable timber lands, mainly owned by the Red River Lumber Company, wildlife, livestock, and fence lines succumbed to its force.

Its eventual twenty-mile-wide front was a horrific sight as every north facing view, from Litchfield to Eagle Lake, became engulfed in flames. Ranchers hurried into the fire zone to attempt to remove their livestock, and every able-bodied man in Susanville was, once again, sent to the front of the fire to assist in saving the town.

Many suggested using dynamite to subdue the flames, destroying any possible propellant in the inferno’s path. Some ranchers used back-fires to attempt to stop the flames, with variable success. Charley Cooper’s cabin on Antelope Mountain was saved, but others were not so fortunate.

As the local ranchers gathered their livestock and moved them to safety, Susanville’s female population packed up their most precious and necessary belongings and prepared for the worst, as every able-bodied man in the town had been sent out to confront the advancing enemy.

By August 26th, the atmospheric conditions had changed for the better. There were even light showers to help quell the fires. The flames near Doyle eased to the point that firefighters could bring them under control, and near Milford the conditions continued to improve. People in Susanville could no longer see the glow in the sky from the south county fires.

In Susanville, everyone gave a sigh of relief as authorities reported on the conditions. The ‘fire traps’, blasted with dynamite to remove fuel from the advancing flames, had held. The surge of the fire front was slowed, and everything was calming down.

For the first time in many days, new recruits were not called for on the fire lines, the lumber mills reopened and called their workmen back to work, and life slowly and warily edged towards normal.

The worst wildfire in Lassen County history had been brought under control.

If you are a fan of our weekly history stories you should join the Lassen County Historical Society! It’s a fun way to be a part of our county’s rich history. When you sign up, you’ll receive regular Historical Society newsletters with interesting stories and information. Membership is open to anyone with an interest in area history.

Through your membership you help preserve local history. You can download a membership application by clicking here.

Jeremy Couso
Jeremy Couso Publisher/Editor
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