Image from space, 2008
Northern California Fires from space, July 6, 2008 NASA image

Someone recently contacted the Kelley House Museum to ask if there had been any major wildfires right along the Mendocino Coast. Docents checked resources and talked to old-timers and all we could come up with was the 1931 Comptche Fire, about 15 miles inland, and the 2008 Mendocino Lightning Complex Fire that burnt from the Elk Coast to Covelo, starting 129 fires that consumed 54,817 acres countywide.

Native peoples used controlled burning to eliminate their versions of weeds and promote new growth of food and basketry plants. These fires did not escape their control.

When logging practices developed on the Coast, trees were fallen, their branches cut off and debris dried out. After the first rains, all the debris was burned so the following spring logs could be dragged by oxen to the mills. Supposedly these debris fires never started forest fires but historical research now shows many big disastrous burns may have started this way.

Old-timers were full of stories on how the 1931 Comptche Fire started. One tale says loggers wanted to burn off logged lands so deer would be more visible come hunting season. However this blaze began in September of 1931, it turned into a monster.

Starting on a warm dry day on Mendocino Lumber Company lands at Nigger Nat Opening, now renamed Nathaniel Smith Opening, on the South Fork of the Big River, Comptche residents could see the smoke until they saw the flames barreling over the ridge to the north. Neighbors telephoned neighbors to alert them to flee. The wind-whipped cinders started fires in many locations. The locals said it sounded like a steam locomotive chugging as flames flashed by. Fire burned all the way to the Navarro River before being controlled. Thousands of acres of timberlands and rangeland burned but no one was killed.

The 2008 Lightning Complex Fire started at six o’clock on the evening of June 20. It burned the west side of Flynn Creek Road but did not spread into the Rancho Navarro subdivision on the east side of the road, to the great relief of hundreds of folks who lived there. It took 2,100 firefighters, 180 fire engines, 15 helicopters and a week of firefighting to get the fire contained.

Why all this information about fires? Because as residents have learned the hard way, you NEED to be prepared at a moment’s notice to flee and it helps to plan ahead.

In 2012, a quick moving fire came through our ranch in Comptche and burnt half the timber on our place, but NOT the house, barn and shops. Why? Because we were as “fire safe” as we could be. Here are some simple ideas to make your place safe too.

Clear around your house. No brush or trees close to the house. No firewood stacked on the front porch. No rain gutters full of leaves or pine needles just waiting for a spark to land in them. Post a clear reflective house number at the end of your driveway. Can a fire truck drive up your road and turn around in your yard? Most everyone has a water tank. Does yours have a fitting to allow a fire truck to draw water from it? CAL FIRE and your local volunteer fire department will tell you what you need. (We have a pipe stanchion with fitting in our parking area.)

Consider joining your local volunteer fire department but if you can’t then support them financially, so they will be able to come to your aid. Work with your neighbors to establish an emergency shelter so everyone knows where to go for help and emergency information. Caspar, Elk and Comptche are all doing this.

Have an emergency plan for your family and a barrel of supplies (not in the house) so you can take care of your family for a few days if need be. Make sure copies of important papers are in that barrel.

Do you live on a one-lane road? It needs to stay open for fire trucks. Where are you going to go to be safe? In Comptche we learned vineyards are a good choice, as grapevines don’t burn much.

The fires in the North Bay counties last year showed us all how fast a fire can spread. None of us ever wants this to be a part of our future, but we can all plan, just in case. We may live in a moist environment near the ocean, but the 2008 lightning strike fires popped up every place. The Mendocino Fire Safe Council has lots of free infomation on how to be prepared.

If you have photos, letters, emails or video of the 2008 Mendocino Lightning Complex Fire, please let us know! You could help us preserve information about this major event in Mendocino history. Call 707-937-5791 or email