by Susan Couso
One thing that we all know about in Lassen County is wildfire. Fire, of course, is a handy thing, but when out of human control it becomes devastating. Our area has a long history of fires threatening our lives and property.
Susanville’s businesses have been destroyed and rebuilt many times over the town’s history, but the surrounding wildlands were not impacted greatly by fire until the early part of the 20th Century.
By the mid 1920’s dry conditions throughout the entire western United States led to major destruction and losses. The winter of 1923-24 was so dry that only about three feet of snow had accumulated atop Donner Summit by early March.
1923-1924 was the driest year on record for nearly one hundred years. In 2020-2021 the record fell to a new low.
During the summer of 1924, Lassen County was engulfed by a wild cataclysm as several fires sprang out of the wildlands. In July, a fire began southwest of Susanville and immediately started its march towards the county seat.
On July 29th, the largest of these fires, pushed by a stiff wind, reached Susanville. The ‘front’ of the fire was nearly a mile wide and sent a shower of sparks and embers into the town. It crossed the Susan River and headed into the city limits where four houses in the Winchester Addition were destroyed by the flames and others were scorched by the intense heat.
The valiant efforts of the hundreds of firefighters prevented further destruction.
At about 2:00 p.m., as the embers descended upon the County Hospital, the water tank was destroyed by flames. Patients were loaded into whatever vehicles were available and removed from immediate danger to the Riverside Hospital above the Fruit Growers Mill Pond.
Two hundred families were evacuated from the surrounding area, as there was little hope of stopping the conflagration, and Southern Pacific passenger train No. 3, scheduled to leave at 3:00 p.m., was delayed as the fire jumped the tracks.
The two lumber mills in town, with over eighty million feet of dried lumber, worked to save their merchandise. Water was pumped from the millpond to prevent the embers from igniting the wood, but the water level soon dropped to a precarious state.
All businesses in Susanville were closed, and every able-bodied man hurried to assist in the efforts to save the town.
A solid wall of flame hovered to the west and south, and the mill whistle continued to send signals out to all employees to report for work on the fire. Residents loaded vehicles with their most prized possessions as they readied to leave their homes, and many expected to lose it all.
As the fire calmed overnight, women began to prepare whatever they could to help feed the hungry firefighters, and a sense of community and concern overtook the town.
Then, on July 28, 1924, sparks from a Fruit Growers Supply Co. logging steam engine, working just west of Eagle Lake, ignited the surrounding vegetation. The fire destroyed everything nearby, including logging equipment and even the railroad tracks, before spreading out at an amazing pace and heading towards the Eagle Lake Resort with an eight-mile-wide front.
By August 1st, the fire was under control and ‘mop up’ was underway. The lumber company lost many thousands of acres of prime timber and spent almost $35,000 attempting to control the flames, but no one was seriously injured.
Near Janesville, at the same time, a blaze was causing great worry as it continued to surge towards the small town. One ‘stand’ of good timber was lost, but the main confines of the fire were situated in the sage and grasslands.
By August 2nd, the blaze in Susanville was officially declared ‘under control’. About fifty men continued to patrol the town, in an effort to ensure that no new flare-ups occurred.
There were two human casualties in the fight to control the fire.
One man was overcome by smoke and a young boy, working to help wherever he could, was struck by a falling tree. Both were taken to Riverside Hospital and treated. Over a thousand men had labored in intense heat and adverse conditions to subdue the raging inferno. Lassen County was lucky.
By August 5th, men were clearing any remaining brush west and south of town, and others were working on Inspiration Point to make sure that the landmark did not burn. Once again, Susanville was saved, and people went back to ‘normal’.
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