One Hot Summer Day: A Blazing Fire Takes The Stage

Lane Dooling

© Copyright 2019 by Lane Dooling

Photo of newspaper reports of the fir.

Lane thought the first day of summer vacation back in 1976 was going to fun and relaxing…little did she know by the end of the day she would be both witness and participant to a community emergency…and the surprising outcome!

It has been years since I have assumed most days will be similar to the day before. I believe this is one of the harsh realities of adulthood - we lose the naivete and blind faith we have as children - that today or tomorrow will be a good day...that nothing bad or scary will happen…or that bad things happen other places.

June 14, 1976 started out like that in my mind - it would be a fun and sunny day. We had just gotten out of school for the summer...maybe we’d go swimming. As the day stretched into late morning, my assumption was shattered. Just after 11:00am, a fire broke out on San Rafael Hill. The local paper would later describe it as “A savage brush and tree fire ravaged San Rafael Hill.” But, when the fire had just begun, there was such an “about face” mind, body and spirit, all I could think about was “what is going to happen...are we going to lose our house...what about the pets...what about the older neighbors...what should we do?” 

Despite the fire being center stage, an experience like this also includes the participants or “players” - my family, neighbors, firefighters, the community and all our homes. Our neighborhood is called Fairhills and located in the City of San Rafael - a suburb north of San  Francisco (Marin County). Mr. Arthur W. Foster, a very rich businessman, broker, and philanthropist, purchased the 180 acre mansion in 1886 and named it Fairhills. He lived there for 44 years with his wife and nine children. The house was known as a “showplace” in San Rafael - complete with a three-story barn, laundry, gatehouse, pond, vineyard, orchard and “children’s recreation area”. Decades later as the city grew (mid 1940’s), real estate developers deemed this exquisite estate “unsuitable for present day living”. There were a few architectural mementos left that all of us living there knew where part of this former mansion - a grey stone wall that lines the main street, a gazebo in one home’s yard, the gate house and palm trees. In 1976, the homes were good sized with nice yards and spread out. Most of our neighbors were older people and we didn’t really know them. We lived high on the hill off the main street which was also a hill. I used to say “we live up two HUGE hills and up a very steep narrow driveway.” Unfortunately, my sisters and I grumbled about having to walk up the all the hills (especially with our bikes) more than we focused on the fabulous view of Mt. Tam (our local mountain) and all this house and area had to offer.

Back to the start of the fire...As I stood outside in our driveway with my two sisters - possibly still in our pajamas (it was summer vacation afterall) - we frantically looked around as the pungent smell of smoke quickly filled the air and the constant shrill of the sirens from the fire trucks could be heard in the distance. In the beginning, we had no idea what the magnitude of the fire was...and where it was. Both our parents were working so we called them and they immediately came home. 

I suppose with any emergency, there is always what goes on in the background or “backstage”. In this situation - backstage was how our family functioned as a whole. In 1976, no one really used terms like “dysfunctional” or someone has “issues”. And, no one talked about a family member having a drinking problem (my father). For many years, I looked back at this day and had to acknowledge that despite a lot of arguing with my sisters, a yelling mother and a distant father - we pulled it off. I guess you could say our strategy was to divide and conquer. Initially, we figured out the tasks - finding out information, watering down the roof, checking on the neighbors, figuring out if we would need to evacuate and what to do with the pets.

We got the "chain" going with the hoses and rounded up buckets in case we needed them too. My sisters and father got on the roof and watered down the shingle roof. A while later, my mother helped me round up the cats and dog and I headed over to a neighbors’ home that I could reach by going through our backyard, across a little bridge and down part of a hill. This was more taxing than it sounds since I had the dog on a leash (not very obedient) and the two cats in the carrier meowing loudly. The day was very hot - mid 90’s - which was extreme for our area. Summer days were usually in the 70’s with no humidity. I made it to the Kenney Family’s large home. They were a military family with at least six children (my sisters and I were friends with the three girls). Nothing could ruffle Mrs. Kenney’s feathers. Her husband was gone for periods at a time and she rolled with the punches raising six kids with just a little help from relatives or friends. The house was comfortable and there always seemed like laundry was being done. I appreciated the relatively calm environment especially since we had less people at my house, but it could be very loud. My arrival didn’t seem to faze them even with the animals. They, too, were on the roof, trying to stay on top of the fire. And, they too decided splitting up would be a good idea. If memory serves me correctly, I ended up in their big station wagon with Mrs. Kenney at the wheel, my friend Kevin (a girl - who I thought had a cool name), her sister Laura...along with their duck, cat and my cats (in carrier) and dog! My dog was surprised to see the duck and the cats were yowling...and every human and pet was HOT!

By now, all the streets leading into the Fairhills area were blocked by emergency crews. I don’t think Mrs. Kenney knew where to go but I can remember her driving up and down hills and we eventually got to an area in the city that was not affected by the fire. This may not seem like a challenging task but in fact it was. We eventually found out that at the same time, another fire about 10 minutes away (San Anselmo’s Sorich Park) was raging. This fire blackened 173 acres and was also considered arson.

Of course as I sat in the hot car, I wondered what was going on at my home...was my family okay (especially on the roof)? To be honest, I probably wondered if they were sisters are very bossy and our father was short tempered at times. I don’t remember how long we were in the car but it seemed like a while as the wispy fragmented fire particles floated in the air and the smoke hung like heavy grey curtains in the hot summer air. With smokey outside air circulating inside the car and duck feathers on the seats along with the cats expressing their displeasure, we finally exited the car. The Kenny's home was safe and I knew how relieved the family was. I made my way home with the animals and was also relieved that our home was safe for the most part. The climax of the afternoon was when some of the shingles caught fire. My sisters and father put out the flames as fast as they could but some were damaged. Instead of replacing the small percentage of damaged shingles, my parents replaced the entire roof with clay tiles. Every day the tiles sat on the roof was a reminder of what happened and how much worse it could have been.

The “second act” of this production was what went on while we were at our posts. All totaled, 175 firefighters were dispatched from 20 county departments and nine air tankers dropped fire retardant materials on both fire areas. The air tankers included a WWII B-17 “flying fortress” heavy bomber (wow!). There were 11 rigs dispersed to battle the flames, block off the roads and help evacuate residents. In the end, five homes were damaged and 50 homes evacuated during the fire. The fire burned 52 acres with three firefighters hurt and six received treatment for minor burns and smoke inhalation. The emergency teams did a great job since this is still considered a major fire decades later. There were quotes in the paper like “Wind-flung branches were dropping off towering eucalyptus and fir trees flaming like torches” and "firefighting was hampered by the steep slopes and flying embers." There was also an article a few days after the fire - a homeowner was quoted saying “Friends came up to help fight the fire. It’s the way it is periodically. Fortunately, the fire department does an outstanding job. When it threatens homes, that’s what’s scary,” she said. “Let’s face it, your home – that’s where your dreams are.” I thought about that last statement off and on for a while. Very often we think of our dwelling as a structure - a place to come home to, entertain, clean...but perhaps less about the deeper emotional things we think about. Was I thinking about dreams when my sisters and I slept outside in the summer on the crab grass in the side yard looking up at the stars? When we swung out of the big oak tree on the rope swing in the backyard? When we looked up at Mt. Tam and acknowledged its beauty and tranquility? When we had relatives over for a holiday? Maybe both memories and dreams...but certainly more than just a structure.

Of course the prequel to all of this is: What happened at 11:00am? After an investigation, it was learned that a 12 year old boy set the fire playing with matches on Robert Dollar Drive (the residential neighborhood below the Fairhills area). It just so happened that some young people working for the City’s Park and Recreation Dept. were pulling weeds - to reduce fire hazard risk (go figure!).  17 year old “Dean” smelled the smoke and ran down the hill to report it. The dozen teenagers picked up hoses, rakes and shovels to fight the flames before the firefighters arrived. The fire raged near the City Hall and nearly took over Falkirk Cultural Center (the historic former estate of Robert Dollar) but the teenagers saved the day!

A much needed side note...Falkirk was built in 1888 and is an elegant three-story home set on 11 acres. In 1906, Captain Robert Dollar, a wealthy businessman (timber and shipping) and civic leader, bought the estate. This was another beautiful Victorian treasure in our town. In February 1972, an attempt was made to secure the property from the Dollar Family for development with plans to demolish the mansion and outbuildings. Luckily, that same year, the estate was placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and a grassroots citizen’s group, Marin Heritage, began a three-year struggle to save the estate. In 1974 - two years before the fire - it became the Falkirk Cultural Center. I would call this serendipitous irony - after a huge effort to save this magnificent historical estate...two years later it almost burned to the ground! As I mentioned before - those teenagers saved the day!

Over the next few weeks, everyone talked over the events of the day. It would later be reported in the paper “In all residential fire areas residents could be seen on the rooftops frantically watering down the tinder dry shingles to keep sparks igniting them especially with the high winds blowing”. I remember after reading this I acknowledged that I, too, had done something important. My time with the duck and yowling cats proved humorous to my family. On a serious note, I know everyone was extremely relieved our home and pets were saved. Over the years, this fire story would come up probably because it wasn't an ordinary day but also because we learned that we could pull together.

Even this many years later, it would be remiss to not think about the lucky breaks in the midst of a raging fire and the damage that resulted. If the teenage boys had not been near the site of the fire and did not fight off the flames before the firefighters came, the Fallkirk Estate (and perhaps other homes) would have been lost. In 1976, my sisters and I were 17,15 and 13. If we have been younger, maybe we wouldn't be able to help as much. In addition, there was neighborly help - people helped each other in any way they could.

The "fire smell" hung in the air for felt like it followed us around. The pasty ashen hill yielded an almost apocalyptic aura where the land had been so severely burned. As the surrounding areas turned green in the winter, San Rafael Hill stood spiritless and vacant. It would take a long while for the earth to be filled in with new growth and the "fire scars" to disappear. The Fairhills area had always been rather mystical to me as I would walk by the rusty iron gates at the bottom of the main street or walk by the house with the gazebo in it. Perhaps I was thinking about the family - what were they like? What was it like to live in such a grand house? There were other homes in the County that were Victorians or at least a century old. But, this was my neighborhood...where I was lucky enough to be able to walk through history every time I trudged up those "two HUGE hills and up a very steep narrow driveway". And, perhaps this was the start of my interest and passion in history...and the knowledge that our historical past, present, and future is priceless and should be protected always…even if it involves hard work, fear, discomfort and a duck!

(Author Note: Lane gratefully acknowledges the Marin History Museum and the Marin Independent Journal who made it possible for her to review this childhood experience and learn even more about her special childhood home, neighborhood and what it means to have family and community band together).

Contact Lane

 (Unless you
type the author's name
in the subject line of the message
we won't know where to send it.)

Lane's story list and biography

Book Case

Home Page

The Preservation Foundation, Inc., A Nonprofit Book Publisher