Media Life

Fire horror could happen here too? It already has

Devastating fires are frequent visitors to Auburn, Placer County
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Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at

. Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.


It was deja vu - magnified exponentially - when fire burned over Paradise this month, killing scores and decimating a town much like Auburn.

With this city and environs sitting perched on a canyon known to ignite into a wildfire on a regular basis most summers and into the fall , Auburn knows fire and knows the fear all too well.

Paradise adds an exclamation point to the need to make the area fire-safe,  learning a horrifying lesson taught by a neighboring California community’s disaster.

Here’s a reminder, published in a previous Media Life, of the fury of fire that visits regularly to the Auburn area - and of just how much damage the area has suffered through.

June 4, 1855

“Auburn Totally Destroyed By Fire” was the headline in the Placer Press days after flames reduced the city to ashes.

“Twas the hour of three o’clock, p.m., and scarcely a breath of air was stirring, when our citizens were startled by a cry of ‘Fire!” the rattled writer exclaimed in print.

Within 10 minutes of one house catching fire, flames spread to more buildings on a sudden breeze. People fighting the fire with hooks, buckets and whatever they could muster were retreating with no hope of saving buildings like the Diana Bowling Saloon and Stephens’ Livery Stable. As the fire spread, business people rushed in and out of stores scrambling to save as much of their mercantile stock as possible.

A city made mostly of wood and big dreams back then, Auburn was gone in 45 minutes.

But the frontier spirit of the times dictated a resurrection. The sound of carpenters’ hammers was already beating a steady tattoo of recovery within days and the Placer Press was striking up an optimistic tone.

“The streets will be widened, better houses go up and on the whole we expect to see a much better and handsomer town spring up as Auburn No. 2,” the paper enthused. And so it was to be.

Aug. 21, 1992

The Fawn Hill Fire ate up 11 houses and 300 acres of land west of Auburn. For complacent residents who lost their homes, it wasn’t supposed to happen like this.

The Fawn Hill Lane homes were built before the state and county adopted rules requiring home builders to provide areas cleared for defensible space around structures. There also were no rules in place on minimum driveway widths to allow fire truck access.

Firefighters could do little to save the homes that burned on Fawn Hill. Ten of the houses were already on fire within the first 30 minutes as wind whipped the flames and wooden decks ignited like tinderwood.

Fire trucks and dozers sent to the scene had to contend with goats, horses and vehicles fleeing the hill down a narrow country road. Then firefighters had to blow-torch their way through locked gates, in some instances.

There were homes that survived the inferno. Some were bypassed in a stroke of chaotic luck. And some were still standing because brush and weeds cleared away provided defensible space that halted onrushing flames.

Aug. 25, 2001

The Star Fire started in Eldorado National Forest and spread to Tahoe National Forest lands in Placer County, burning through more than 16,000 acres. A stubborn fire in inhospitable terrain, it took more than 20 days to corral. In the Duncan Canyon area traversed by the Western States Trail, the damage was to old growth forest and crucial habitat. Because of crowning – which sends embers flying high from tree to tree – 75 percent of the forest was reduced to ash. Sometimes houses aren’t scorched when fires roar through Placer County but the impact is great. The Star Fire was one of those times when fire’s footprint on the human world was light but came down heavily on nature.

Aug. 30, 2009

This one’s still an open case and an open sore.

The Cal Fire investigation team on North Auburn’s catastrophic 49 Fire has yet to make an arrest in an arson fire that devastated a community on a wind-whipped Sunday afternoon. The state fire authority concluded that two fires were deliberately set to start the 49 Fire but has never said how the twin blazes ignited.

The 49 Fire totaled $40 million in damage, with 62 homes destroyed and 18 more damaged in residential areas near Dry Creek Road and Highway 49.

The acreage was relatively small as fires go at 343 and no one was killed. But it was the biggest fire the Auburn area had experienced, with hundreds displaced and a mystery investigators have yet to clear up.

Cal Fire described the 49 Fire as “The Perfect Storm” because of a convergence of wind speeds, temperature and high vegetation conditions that late-summer day.

The arsonist is still out there, perhaps waiting for the next “Perfect Storm” opportunity.

July 11, 2012

Some leftover fireworks and poor decision-making skills led to one of the more dangerous fires to strike forested land between Foresthill and Colfax. Both communities were threatened, with flames seering structures on the outskirts of Foresthill and forcing evacuations.

A Sacramento man with leftover 4th of July fireworks to burn had lit off one intended to shoot flares into the air. The ensuing sparks lit up grass near the Shirttail Canyon swimming spot and quickly spread up a hill. In all, 2,650 acres of grassland and forest were burned over.

Media Life’s Gus Thomson can be reached at Thomson is a state and national award-winning reporter who writes for the Auburn Journal.