25 Years Ago: The Faces of the 49er Fire

NEVADA CITY Calif. Sept. 11, 2013 – Capturing a multifaceted event such as a major fire is a complex task. Everybody who participated or whom it affected has a different take on what happened and when. With time, memories ebb, perspectives broaden or narrow, and hard facts get relegated to archived copies of official reports and microfiched issues of newspapers. All one can really do is capture the essence of the experience, what struck people and stayed with them. The 49er Fire, which started 24 years ago on September 11, was just such an event.

In this article, five participants recall their experiences during that horrific week. By the end, 144 homes and 219 other structures were either destroyed or damaged and 35,300 acres burned, with a value of $28 million. Miraculously, nobody died, but $7.5 million was spent to suppress a fire that started by accident during a Constitution Day September weekend in 1988.

Advertisement

Day One: September 11, 1988, North of Nevada City

Gary Wayne Parris was a 39-year-old Vietnam vet and Mississippi native with problems that prevented him from holding a steady job. To earn money, he washed windows around Grass Valley and Nevada City. He couldn’t get a driver’s license, so he’d hitchhike around the county. When he had money, he’d buy bottles of wine, then head back to an abandoned home he squatted in on Birchville Road along Highway 49, across from Tyler Foote Crossing. It didn’t have working plumbing. Bathroom facilities were outside behind the house. Toilet paper was made up of paper sacks torn into strips. That posed a problem on a hot, dry windy night in September 1988. The smell was coming right into the house, which had no windows and no doors. In Vietnam, he’d learned to burn human feces to get rid of the smell, and that’s what he decided to do.

But the fire Parris started at about 9 a.m. quickly jumped into the bushes, and he realized he needed to put it out. He tried hauling buckets of water from a nearby pond, but got burned in the effort. So he raced out to Highway 49 and flagged down a driver heading to work that Sunday morning. The man grabbed a shovel out of his vehicle and tried to scrape a line around the flames, but that was insufficient.

At the same time, a Columbia Hill Forest Fire Station crew coming down from Camptonville after fighting a structure fire and just nearing Peterson’s Corner saw smoke on the south side of Tyler Foote Crossing Road and Highway 49 and called it in. They attempted to put out the fire, but their efforts failed. The fire had taken off.

CDF Headquarters in Auburn

Sherm Hanley was living on Banner Mountain in September 1988. The region had been expecting north winds, what Hanley calls “devil winds or Santa Anas.”

“Those of us in the fire service, when we have northwinds, our hackles go up,” he says. “It’s a drying wind – one of the primary factors of spreading fire. And we knew there was a northwind inbound.”

In the early hours of Sunday, September 11, he woke up to the roar of howling wind. “Wow, I said. I’ve got to get to work,” Hanley recalls. “I told my wife, ‘See you!’ hopped in my little car and drove to Auburn.”

Hanley was the emergency command center chief working out of Auburn in what was then known as the California Department of Forestry or CDF Nevada-Yuba-Placer Ranger Unit. His primary responsibility was dispatching resources to CDF-related emergencies for an area stretching across five counties, including Sutter and Sierra. The range encompassed five battalions, and within each battalion, three or four fire stations, as well as special battalions such as the Air Attack Base at Nevada County Airport.

His immediate boss came in early too. They were sitting at a two-position radio console, sipping their coffee when the first call came in at 9 a.m. Within 10 minutes of the first report, they had air tankers attacking the fire. Within 50 minutes, engines were on site.

From that moment, with the exception of bathroom breaks, Hanley didn’t leave the console until 9 or 10 that night.

“It was still pretty small,” says Hanley. “But we knew within half an hour we had a tiger by the tail.” Before an hour had passed Hanley and his boss had “unloaded” – sent everything they had – to respond to the fire.

“It wasn’t standard,” he says. “At that time of day, it would have [normally] been a low dispatch. But we were already in high dispatch. Then we went into second alarm.”

About 30 or 40 minutes after that initial fire report, a little scratchy voice called in from the Oregon Peak Fire Watch Tower near Dobbins, “Auburn, Oregon Peak Fire Traffic.” A second fire had been spotted about a mile from the initial fire, on the north side of Birchville Road by the Pine Grove Reservoir – perhaps started by sparks or a power line arc.

Charlie Jakobs, a 38-year-old fire captain specialist working as an information officer for CDF in 1988, says that within 30 seconds of that initial call, “Oregon Peak came back and said, ‘This fire is building rapidly.'” Jakobs knew he’d soon be called on to answer questions from area radio, newspaper, and television reporters, so he jumped into a vehicle, picked up a colleague in Grass Valley, and headed to the fire.

Soon, the two fires merged.

On the scene were eight CDF engines, 2 bulldozers and a handcrew. An air attack plane and two air tankers were working from overhead. By 10 a.m. 20 to 40 acres had burned, and by 11 a.m. that had increased to 100 acres.

To get additional forces Hanley contacted immediate range unit neighbors – Butte, Amador-El Dorado in Camino, as well as the Tahoe National Forest office in Nevada City – all of which began sending out equipment too.

Weekend Plans Gone Awry

On Sunday morning, September 11, Kurt Chamberlin had risen early to pack for a family houseboat trip to Lake Oroville. But the moment he walked out the door, the day caught his attention. “It was so dry and overly warm for that time of year,” he recalls 20 years later. “And the wind. Trees were moving enough that I noticed it and could feel it. Being a fireman, you [know], this is a fire day.”

“Those winds were so bad, it blasted down through Browning Ranch and south of Peterson’s Corner,” he recalls. “It crossed the South Yuba about 1 that afternoon. It didn’t go down to the river and back up, though – it went straight across it. That’s when it got into Bitney Springs and then ran into Wildwood.”

Chamberlin at that time had a day job running cattle at a ranch off of Highway 20. He was also a volunteer for the Ophir Hill Fire Protection District in Cedar Ridge. He finished loading the car and had begun monitoring coverage of a fire that had started off of Highway 49. Two strike teams had been sent out within an hour of the first dispatch, Chamberlin says. “It just got worse and worse. It was pretty inevitable that we were going to be out there.”

Like the other volunteers, Chamberlin had both a pager and a Plectron. This single-channel radio receiver would put out varying tones to notify the first responders that they were needed on a call.

Shortly after 9 a.m. his company received its first call. “They kept ordering and ordering, and that’s when we decided we needed to put a strike team together,” says Chamberlin.

As acting chief, it was his job to sort out which of the two dozen volunteers would stick around to provide coverage locally and which would be sent out on the engines.

By 1988 George Rath had been working off and on for KNCO primarily in programming for about 10 years. At that time, the station was still playing music with short news segments three times a day. The news staff had only two or three people, Rath recalls. He’d never really covered a major fire.

On the morning of September 11, Rath was at the First Baptist Church by Nevada Union High School. Leaving church, he could see smoke coming from the Penn Valley area. He headed down to Orangevale, near Sacramento, to celebrate his mother’s birthday, and the smoke plume followed his car down Highway 49. He remembers thinking, “This isn’t going to be good.”

After the celebration, Rath went into work and for the next week helped produce the around-the-clock radio coverage of the fire that eventually garnered the Nevada County radio station a reputation as the little train that could. (The three major network news shows in Sacramento at the time were so impressed, each in turn profiled KNCO in segments of their own, as did a station in San Diego.)

Like Chamberlin, Carol Gicker and her husband Jon had weekend plans, tent-trailer camping with her folks. Saturday night, September 10, they headed next door to drop off their dog to the house of Jon’s brother, Jeremy. But the house, on McKitrick Ranch Road, a ridge about a mile from the end of Jones Bar Road and above the South Yuba River canyon, had a note on the door stating he was gone for the weekend. So they checked the family pet into a kennel instead.

The Gickers took off about 10 on Sunday morning. Later that day, Carol’s brother contacted the sheriff’s office in the county where they were staying, which located them in the campground from their license plate. They called her brother. “He said a big fire was near our house and also at Lake Wildwood” Gicker recalls. She was skeptical. “I thought, how could it be at our house and at Lake Wildwood? But he was right.”

They called another friend, Frances Burton, who lived across town, on Lake Vera Road. She didn’t know much. Then they managed to reach Jon’s brother. When Gicker spoke to him, he let her know that the firefighters had been out with their bulldozers and had dug up water lines and phone lines; but aside from the mess on the ground, the wind had shifted, and the fire had gone back down the hill into the canyon.

By this time it was late, so Gicker and her husband decided to stay where they were that night and return home the next morning.

By 1:45 p.m. evacuations had begun for residents living between Jones Bar Road and Bitney Springs Road and from Newtown Road to Pleasant Valley Road. Structures along Owl Creek Road and McKitrick were going down fast.

About the same time, Chamberlin had assembled a strike team with four engines and a water tender. After conferring with an incident commander about where equipment was needed, they came up through Grass Valley on Bitney Springs and ended up on Starduster Drive above Lake Wildwood. Their job: to help protect the homes scattered along the road in a grove of 15-foot old-growth Manzanita.

“So I stopped everybody to go ahead and see what we had ahead of us. I didn’t want to get too far in,” Chamberlin recalled. “We had no safety zones. We couldn’t see the fire.”

An air tactical spotter flying overhead asked, “What are you doing in there?” Chamberlin responded, “We’re going to do structure protection.” “He said, ‘It’s coming your way. Get out of there.’ So we did everything we could – backing into the brush – just trying to get everybody turned around.”

He remembers thinking, “Oh my god, we haven’t been here half an hour and I’m going to kill 30 people.”

Chamberlin, driving a brand new Dodge Ram Charger, was the last one out. The radiant heat melted the truck’s back bumper flap and lightbar and removed all the lettering from the tailgate.

Communicating the Path of Destruction

That afternoon the fire was burning at a rate of 1,000 acres per hour. Winds were gusting at 40 to 45 miles an hour. Walls of flame extended up 200 feet high. “This thing was just spewing, just rolling on,” says CDF spokesman Jakobs.

He’d already called on local and regional amateur radio operators, who were acting as “forward-looking eyes for me.” They set up posts in their vehicles with their communication equipment all over the affected or projected routes of the fire. Altogether, Jakobs says, there were 130 people working in the information function. From the CDF command center that had been set up at the Grass Valley Fairgrounds, Jakobs would call on the operators as questions from the press came in regarding the fire’s directions.

“[Local radio station] KNCO would want to know, ‘Hey, we just got a phone call where the fire was coming in Shoshone Trail.’ I’d respond, ‘Stand by. Let me check.’ I’d look at the map and see what unit was working in that area – maybe it was unit three or something. I had a tactical call sign of I1, I for information. I’d go, ‘I5, I1’ and that fast it’d come back, ‘I5.’ ‘OK, location?’ ‘We are over here at Highway 49 and Shoshone Trail’ ‘Do you have active fire going there?’ ‘Negative.’ ‘OK. Continue.’ This all took place within a matter of 15-20 seconds. ‘There is no fire on Highway 49 and Shoshone trail. People were looking at a fire there across the canyon, way across the canyon, nowhere near Shoshone Trail. It’s burning away from there.’ Confirmation like that went on day and night for several days.

By 6 p.m. that night, 4,000 acres had burned. An army of air tankers were dropping a total of about 21,000 gallons of retardant an hour. They made 120 flights that first day. Two helicopters hauled bucket after bucket of water from nearby water sources.

Just a few hours earlier, Lake Wildwood had been evacuated, with traffic out of the residential community taking 90 minutes to make the two-mile drive from the main gate to Highway 20. In all, about 3,000 people left their homes that day. Evacuees who didn’t have family or friends to stay with headed to evacuation centers initially set up at Ready Springs School and the Grass Valley Veterans’ Memorial Building. The next day they were moved to Nevada Union High School.

Radio man Rath remembers spending time on the air anchoring coverage of the fire, then he’d head into the newsroom and cover it from the information side, then he’d go out onto the firelines.

“It was just incredible,” he says. “I remember doing a report as we were driving through Bitney Springs. This was at night. We had smoke, fire on the left of us. fire on the right of us, and fire in the front of us. I said to listeners, ‘This is the closest thing to hell that I can imagine and I don’t want to be there.'”

Day Two: The Battle Continues

On Monday afternoon, Carol and Jon Gicker had stopped to drop their tent-trailer off at Burton’s house on Lake Vera Road. “She just looked at us,” says Gicker. “We said, ‘Well, according to Jon’s parents, everything was OK as of last night.’ She said, ‘You better call them.’ She knew but didn’t want to be the one to tell us.”

During the previous night, Jon Gicker’s brother Jeremy had returned from his trip and he and friends were hauling as much out his house as they could manage. After a break, he came back out at five in the morning to see that the wind had reversed itself and the fire was coming back up the canyon. He retrieved firefighters, but by the time they’d returned, the Gicker house was in flames. He returned to his own home to try to get more out, but by then, the firefighters warned him to get out. He and his friends made a run for it, while the firefighters got into their shake & bake shelters and waited out what turned out to be a 40-minute firestorm.

When it was over, both houses were gone.

By Monday afternoon, Gicker and her husband attempted to get back to the property, but the road was so filled with equipment, they could only get as far as the end of Jones Bar before turning back.

What struck the firefighters about this conflagration was its scope. “We’d had fires in the county before,” says Chamberlin. “We’ve always hit them pretty quickly. So everybody was a little lackadaisical – oh, this is going to be put out right away too.” That explains the initial reactions from residents in the affected areas.

Chamberlin’s task force holed up on the other side of Bitney Springs and performed structure protection work around a house. As the fire approached, a bulldozer driver on the scene sliced open a Doughboy pool with his tractor blade and let the 20,000 gallons of water run out, which helped save the building.

Yet, at that location Chamberlin received a “talking to” about losing the homeowner’s woodpile, which went up in flames.

The team moved down Bitney Springs Road, going house to house, knocking on doors and notifying occupants that they had to clear out.

At one house, a woman snapped to Chamberlin, “Well, I’m on the phone.”

Chamberlin responded, “You’ve got about four minutes until it hits here.” Then he turned and walked away, leaving the door open so she could see the smoke and flames.

At many points Chamberlin’s company stayed inside their vehicles. When conditions allowed, they would get out to fight the fire and manipulate it around houses.

What he recalls vividly of that time is viewing the surreal scene of a dark afternoon, the sky thick with black smoke, while flaming boats burned in the middle of Lake Wildwood. “Embers would land on their covers, then burn their ropes, and they’d drift off from their docks.”

Once the fire settled into Lake Wildwood, he and others went out ahead of the blaze to communicate with people who lived in ranches along Highway 20 – the same area where Chamberlin was working in his day job as a cowboy.

In all, Chamberlin knows of 10 homes that he and his crew had saved, just outside of Lake Wildwood. But the one he most remembers is one that didn’t make it. “We had fought hard to save it, and we came back the following day, and it was on the ground.” An ember had smoldered in a gutter full of leaves and pine needles. Those caught fire, which spread into the attic, long after the fire had blown through. “To come back and see that home was a kick in the face,” Chamberlin says.

At the height of the fire, 11 air tankers ran out of Grass Valley, says Jakobs. Six to eight helicopters were flying out of a field across from the fairgrounds. The FAA ran a portable air traffic control station off the back of a flatbed to coordinate air traffic around the entire incident.

Day Three: A House is Lost and a Community Rallies

Finally, on Tuesday, Gicker and her husband had made it back to their property. Gicker remembers, “Everything was still hot. They were still putting out hotspots. There was nothing left of our house except a cement block foundation.”

They stepped through the ashes and found one small dish and a little soapstone polar bear they’d acquired during a time when they lived in Vancouver, British Columbia.

Across town, KNCO put out a plea, asking for money for fire victims as well as firefighters who were giving their all, recalls Rath. “We put it out on the radio. ‘If you want to, come by and drop off money and help us out.’ Within half an hour,” he says, “we had over $4,000, and it just kept pouring in. They were lining up on East Main Street to drop off money.”

People in the community were driven to help in any way they could. As Jakobs recalls, that resulted in the baking of a lot of cookies, cakes and “foodstuff.” On Tuesday, KNCO put out the word to deliver them to the fairgrounds, where the firefighting central command work was set up. “Holy mackerel, what a mess that was! I have a room full of radios and telephones, and now I got tables full of food.”

Once that spigot of goodwill was turned off, the next day another spigot turned on. “On Wednesday morning, we had 10,000 letters from schools,” Jakobs says. “Bags, big mail sacks.”

Jakobs talked to “Chuck,” a former merchant marine sailor who had served meals to Marines on Hiroshima, now in charge of feeding everybody involved in the firefighting effort. He suggested that Chuck’s crew stuff three letters into each of the 3,000 lunch sacks going out that day.

“So these guys finally got a break after 24, 36 hours, they finally got some food, they sit down, they start eating and then find these letters in there,” Jakobs remembers. “They’re from little Johnny and Suzy and Joey, saying, ‘Hey, Mr. Firefighter, thank you so much for saving our community. We appreciate what you do. We love you firefighters.’ These big, burly guys were all breaking down crying out there. What a bunch of wimps.”

One of those firefighters, Chamberlin, got his first break from the work 36 hours after that initial Sunday afternoon engagement, in the wee hours of Tuesday morning. Until then, he was running on adrenaline. When he finally fell asleep, it was in his truck. “I leaned my head against the window and I was out.” He didn’t wake up for three hours.

“People were zombies,” he says. “Everybody fought. We just had rigs from everywhere. It was something else.”

The fire had been blowing from the northeast to the southwest, heading from North San Juan towards Beale Air Force Base, but eventually that would shift.

“We knew that as soon we got off into the grass, we would be able to pick it up pretty readily because the fuels are lighter, they go up quicker, and they do not have as much heat,” says Jakobs. “Our big concern was our right and left flanks. From the point of origin looking down towards Beale, everything on the right hand side of the fire is the right flank; everything on the left hand of the fire is the left flank. We were really concerned with the left flank, because it burned down into the South Fork Creek drainage, burned down into the Deer Creek drainage. Those two drainages – they’re steep and full of fuel. The Deer Creek drainage goes down behind Rough & Ready, and the South Fork goes all the way down to Bridgeport. As our weather began to turn around and change, now all of a sudden, the winds are no longer blowing at that direction, they’re coming in from the south, southwest. That meant our lines had to be secure enough to take wind on that side so we could contain the fire and keep it contained. Our biggest concern was, it was going to break loose and take off and go into Grass Valley and Nevada City.”

A flare-up on Jones Bar Road kept firefighters working to prevent it from hopping Highway 49 and threatening homes along the end of Cement Hill Road. Fires around Rough and Ready and the Grass Valley Group complex began heading east toward Grass Valley at a speed of about half a mile an hour.

It was an incredible effort, Jakobs says. “Do you realize in three days time, we built a fire perimeter around 33,500 acres? That is roughly 55 miles. We built the equivalent of Interstate 80 in three days time to ring this fire down to bare minimal soil – with hand crews and bulldozers.”

Also amazing: There were no human fatalities. Says Jakobs, “There were more injuries to animals than to people. Injuries to people were all minor.”

Day Four: Facing the Future

By Wednesday, reported The Union, the fire was 90 percent contained. The end of the struggle was near, at least for some. Nearly 116,000 gallons of retardant had been dumped on western Nevada County.

Carol Gicker faced the loss of her home with stoicism. “It was a matter of figuring out what to do,” she says. “There was an interesting feeling almost of freedom – that all this stuff was gone and you’re just starting over.”

What to do consisted of figuring out where to stay, how to deal with the insurance company, and deciding whether to rebuild. The Gickers signed up with the American Red Cross, which had set up a center at Condon Park in Grass Valley. They each received a $50 gift certificate to buy a pair of shoes and a little packet with a toothbrush, soap, a washcloth, and other incidentals. Later, after a community collection, they received a stipend of $75 or $100 to use for groceries.

As part of the insurance process, they compiled an inventory of everything they owned that was lost in the fire – “with nothing to go on,” says Gicker, “but our memory.”

There was a financial motivation to rebuild at the same location; the homeowners’ insurance would only pay full value on their policy if they did the rebuilding. But other variables weighed in on the decision too. For one, the Gickers didn’t have power from PG&E on their property before the fire. Would they rebuild only to be stuck running a generator again? Also, says Gicker, “One of the concerns was, would we ever see trees again in our lifetime?”

One of the shocks of visiting their property she recalls, was “coming out and finding everything black.” She remembers falling in love with the color white after the fire. “I wanted everything white.”

Friends, she says, were their mainstays. Nevada City friends helped bring down burned trees and replant new trees and were constantly coming by to see what was needed. Gicker’s brother brought clothing that friends had provided to pass on. Jon Gicker’s co-workers provided boxes of dishes, clothing and towels. The law firm where Carol worked gave her paid time off to deal with insurance paperwork.

During the same period, they moved into their tent-trailer, then, as the weather cooled, into a camper, an extra bedroom, and finally a rented trailer, each situated in turn at their friend’s house on Lake Vera Road. They relied on their friend’s electricity, water and bathing facilities for 18 months.

Sherm Hanley remembers working nearly a week straight. “I don’t think I managed more than three or four hours a night of sleep.” When it was over, he says, he felt guilty. “I really truly felt guilty that my function didn’t perform. I felt guilty about – quote – losing that fire. My responsibility was to send adequate resources to the incident and use my own good judgment and experience and training and tools to mitigate the incident.”

When it was all done, the fire had burned a path through the county that was seven miles wide and 12 miles long. Between 4,000 and 5,000 homes were threatened and 4,000 residents had to be evacuated. The firefighting involved 2,800 people from 20 different local, state and federal agencies, which, besides the CDF and Tahoe National Forest, included the Bureau of Land Management; California National Guard; the Highway Patrol; PG&E; the State Office of Emergency Services; and local departments from Placer, Yuba, Tehama, Butte and Sacramento Counties, as well as San Francisco, Pacifica, Fremont, Redding, Weaverville, Folsom and Rio Linda.

Later, a battalion chief friend who’d worked the fire said to Hanley, “Sherm, you could have had the whole San Francisco fire department and you couldn’t have stopped that fire.”

“It really was a dramatic fire,” Hanley concludes.

By Thursday at 8 a.m., the winds had backed off, the trail of the fire had reached the Big Oak Valley area, and the CDF had declared the fire officially “caught.” By 9 p.m. that night, all fire crews were released to go home.

At the start of the fire, the Draft Horse Classic, scheduled for the following weekend, had been canceled. So on Sunday, one week after the beginning of the fire, KNCO and others hosted a day-long event at the fairgrounds called “An Early Thanksgiving” to thank firefighters and aid those who had lost their homes. Event organizers expected 3,000 attendees, but 15,000 people showed up instead. That day $102,000 was raised.

The Gickers did rebuild – after PG&E agreed to bring power to the neighborhood at minimal cost ($2,100 split among three households). They also enlarged the house and situated it with a view over the same canyon from which had come the fire that had consumed their previous home. The trees have grown up – pines, and firs, and oaks that are now 30 feet tall. “Now, we’re feeling closed in again,” Gicker says. Following the 49er Fire, the area was reseeded aerially to prevent erosion, so now every year they struggle to keep the grass cut around their property.

Other changes: The Gickers monitor an emergency scanner, a habit they didn’t have prior to that September week 20 years ago. “When it’s three beeps and a fire, we listen to where it is,” says Gicker. Plus, each summer they pack up boxes with their most important documents, which can be grabbed and hauled away quickly should an emergency strike. And they’ve still got a generator. If they need to evacuate, they’ll run the well off the generator and stick a sprinkler on the roof of the house to keep it watered. “I don’t know how effective it would be,” she adds.

But whether it was a faulty heater in that rented trailer, the stress of the home loss or a the stress of rebuilding, Jon Gicker lost his health. Twice that first year, he ended up going to the hospital with asthma. “He’d had allergies,” says Carol, “but never asthma.” He’s never fully recuperated, she says. “The worst thing that happened to us was his health deterioration. He’s got it under control with medications, but it changed our whole lives.”

Gary Parris, the vagrant who had started the fire, was cited under a new public resource code for reckless abandonment of fire (a misdemeanor charge that was eventually upgraded to two felony charges of reckless burning). Remorseful, Parris got drunk in Nevada City and ended up in Pioneer Park. Word had gotten out about his role in starting the fire, so for his own safety the police arrested Parris and put him in protective custody. Months later, he eventually was found guilty of both charges at a trial that took place in Yuba City. The judge declared him insane, and he was sent to Atascadero State Hospital for psychiatric treatment.

“Way back then, I saw the career fire of my life,” says firefighter Chamberlin. “But it was a just a little glimpse of the future – unbeknownst to me at the time. Here it is 2008, and look at the devastation that’s been going on. In 20 years, how many more people have moved into the woods? And fire seasons are lasting darned near year-round.”

Kurt Chamberlin is still fighting fires, but now it’s from the sky, as the air tactical group supervisor for the Grass Valley Air Attack Team out of the Nevada County Airport.

Carol Gicker eventually went to work for the county library system. Her husband Jon retired as a court reporter in Yuba County three years ago. They still reside in the home they built after the 49er Fire.

After a career with the California Division of Forestry, Sherm Hanley retired. When he isn’t flying his own plane, he works part-time at the Nevada County Airport refueling planes and taking care of airport clients.

George Rath still works at KNCO as an on-air personality and is the program director for Star 94.1. He’s also involved in the drama department at Twin Cities Church.

Charlie Jakobs is still with CDF, now called the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection or Cal FIRE. He works at Washington Ridge Conservation Camp, managing inmates in fire suppression and conservation activities. During major fire incidents in the state, however, Charlie can be found in the center of activities, performing media outreach and communicating to the public.

Editor’s Note: This story was originally published on Sept. 11, 2008

Dian Schaffhauser is a freelance writer who has lived in Nevada County since 1999. This story was written for the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County.