NOTE:  The Harlow Fire burned 20,000 acres in two hours, destroying 105 structures and
claiming two lives. This is one of the fastest spreading wildfires ever recorded.


 July 10-  July 15 1961

HARLOW FIRE - Part - 1

The day that the Harlow Fire made the big run from CHOWCHILLA RIVER, burned  AHWAHNEE and NIPINNAWASEE, and came right to the outskirts of COARSEGOLD, I had to be at the ELLIOTTS, and was going back to our ranch in MADERA COUNTY.
I could see that this fire was starting to burn south at a rapid rate, so 1 drove through AHWAHNEE and headed down to POISON SWITCH (on Road 600). I  felt that the fire and I were going to get to POISON SWITCH at about the same time. The fire and I did get to POISON SWITCH about the same time and  there was a large green, grassy area there where I parked the pickup and
rolled the windows up so it wouldn't catch fire. There was a highway  patrolman parked there and he drove off, dust a-flying. I grabbed my shovel  and got across the river and CROOKS CREEK to see if any sparks had come across and I could stop them. But a whole shower of sparks came down and very shortly I could see that it was a lost cause. About that time, Jim KATES drove by in a pickup and he continued on towards AHWAHNEE right  through the flames. I thought if he can do it, I can too.  I got in my
pickup and started out and I drove through a wall of flame near where the  VETERANS OF FOREIGN WARS is now.

Just past the hall, I could see a woman was still there. It was a woman we had previously known; she had been Missed when the people wee evacuated.  I knew that to be hauled out of there  in very short order or she’d burn to death because there was a big, downed
bull pine behind her cabin. She was in her nightdress; I kept urging her to get some clothes on and to grab her valuables and I’d take her out of there.
She said she didn’t want to leave. I told her, “Lady, if you don’t get some clothes on and get your valuables, I’m just going to have to put you in the pickup and haul you out like you are.” After a long wait, she did get some outer clothes on and I got her in the pickup and drove her up to the MECHHI’ S store and left her there. I went back to the woman’s place because I had seen a man across the street from her house who looked like he was going to stay there and try to save his buildings. When I returned, it turned out the
man was one I had known all my life, Jim JORDAN.


By this time the fire was right close to his dwellings and the power supply was all gone; what little water they had was in their tea kettles and pots. He had mowed around his place with a power mower and the grass was pretty short. I told the family I thought we’d be fine and we could probably save their buildings. About this time, a herd of cattle came up out of the FRESNO
RIVER to the fence with the fire right behind them. I grabbed the axe out of my pickup and cut the fence down in several places so that the cattle could get out to the road (Road 600). They disappeared towards AHWAHNEE or OAKHURST.   By that time, the fire had reached several buildings; the butane tanks had caught and were whistling as the butane burned. Right next to my
friend’s house was a horse pasture and a couple of horses. The horses just went berserk but they were in a “fed off” pasture and I figured they were safer there than any place else, so we just left them. We did save my friend ’s house and that of the woman he rented the place from.  Across the street, the bus driver HOLDSCLAW  had a house and there was no one there. Jim Jordan and I also saved the HOLDSCLAW house. These three houses and a couple more were all the houses left in Ahwahnee and Nipinnawasee.

When I drove back towards ELLIOTT’S, MECCHI’S store had burned, CROOKS store had burned, and all the dwellings along the way. In all that time, I never saw a forestry vehicle in AHWAHNEE. I found out later why. The (State) Forest Service men had been down towards the CHOWCHILLA RIVER. This fire had swept over them and trapped them in the CHOWCHILLA BASIN. (U.S.) Forest Service did have a fire camp on the WORMAN’S property with maybe two-hundred-fifty men and vehicles. When I drove in there and told them there wasn’t much left of  AHWAHNEE or NIPINNAWASEE, they couldn’t believe it.
Bob JORDAN had a big house just past the store but it burned.  There were
JORDANS who lived across the
Street who stayed and saved two houses.

On the third day of the Harlow Fire, it was probably a quarter of a mile north of Coarsegold and extended
 from there north to the Fresno rive.  At 9o’clock in the morning a crew had been assembled by Fritz KONKLIN a forest ranger.  When I showed up, he asked if I would “fire” a bulldozer line to the line to the Fresno River with a
torch. He sent along a Mexican boy named Porfino “Porfy” GARCIA to help. There was a local man, Enos SHAUBACH with a bulldozer and he started building a line from where the highway and the fire met above COARSEGOLD to the north,
toward the Fresno River. We “fired” this line with a method used many times by local firefighters. We set the first fire well inside from the dozer line; then “Porfy” came along right at the fireline, setting backfires as fast as he could walk. It took about an hour and a half; we fired this line clear to the FRESNO RIVER. Fritz and the crews came along behind to see that
there were no “spots” or “slop-over fires” on this line. When we got to the bluff of the FRESNO RIVER, Fritz stopped us from firing and said that Henry BOHNA, who is a COARSEGOLD resident, knew more about the area going down
into the river and that he would fire that. The hope was to keep the fire on the east side of the river.

We held up firing on down the fire line while Henry fired way back in the fire to pull the fire away from us. Things didn’t work out just as planned as the fire crowned up through the bull pines and leaned over the FRESNO RIVER. It set fires in one-hundred places on the north side of the river! Our bulldozer man had anticipated this and had his tractor on the
other side of the river. He was able, on his own, to contain the fire on the north side of the river! After that, we fired the fire line on down into the FRESNO RIVER and this contained the HARLOW FIRE on the south side towards COARSEGOLD.

Excerpted from “AS WE WERE TOLD” A publication of the Coarsegold Historical Society, it is an oral and written history of Eastern Madera County California.  It is a wonderful book and a great resource.  There may still be copies available.

submitted by Harriet Sturk

Part -1-

                             Another Perspective

The HARLOW FIRE started in MARIPOSA COUNTY and burned south and east to the top of  DEADWOOD MOUNTAIN at COARSEGOLD. Approximately 250 homes were destroyed. The little town of NIPINNAWASEE, about nine miles above OAKHURST on Highway 49, was leveled except for the school and one house. The school, first opened in 1912, was named after Craig CUNNINGHAM who was the Superintendent of Schools of MADERA COUNTY at the time the school was built.
I went to school there in 1916. This school has more recently been moved to OAKHURST to the SIERRA HISTORIC SITES MUSEUM..

     The Harlow Fire started coming southeast. Instead of backfiring in front of it, the firefighters backed off and tried to build a fireline to hold it. The State didn’t believe in backfiring then so the fire got such a start they just couldn’t stop it. When they finally did stop it,  it was in the area of the top of DEADWOOD and Highway 41, on the south side of DEADWOOD MOUNTAIN.. My brother, Ned, and I had a sawmill at AHWAHNEE and I had a sawmill at AHWAHNEE  and the fire burned it, along with all the lumber, all the logging Equipment, and our house.

      Bill HULL and the KISER boys saved the school; the boys were high school age.  Some of the personal suffering can be described like this:  I couldn’t get any news about my mother or brother and it wasn’t until the next day that I learned they had gone near a pond until they could get to OAKHURST to spend the night.

My mother lost her house and everything else. My brother had a pressure system on the well; he had lots of water in the well, but when the power line burned through and dropped down, that was the end of the power. He never knew where it came from, but there was a big piece of tarpaper roofing that came through on the wind. It was on fire and landed on the roof of his
house. Everything was so hot that when it hit that roof-- woof!!! They were lucky to save themselves! They came down to the old reservoir across the road from the ROUNDHOUSE. Lots of people went to that reservoir; if it got too hot, they
could wade into it and save themselves.

  Fresno Bee- July 23, 1961
METCALF: Never Saw Anything Like Harlow Fire in 35 Years

By Earl M. Kidder

Early in the morning of July 10th a wisp of smoke ws spotted lazily drifting up-ward near the Sierra foothill area in Mariposa County known as Usona.  By 4 PM the next day, this wisp had developed into a raging inferno which killed two people, destroyed more than 90 homes and eventually was to spread over 43,000 acres of grass, brush and timber.
This was the Harlow Fired, one of the worst in foothill history  In a two hour period on July 11, the Harlow inferno flashed over 18,800 acres, taking with it the towns of Nipinawasee and Ahwahnee.  It sent flaming fingers dangerously close to the towns of Coarsegold and Oakhurst before it roared on northeast toward the Yosemite Forks on Highway 41.

  Mountain folk will long discuss the Harlow.  So will the hundreds of firefighters, both volunteers and professional who finally licked it at 10 PM July 15th.

Most  of the fire was on land protected by the state division of forestry. It threatened the adjoining Sierra National Forest.  Both agencies fought it, tooth and nail, but the main responsibility probably was the state's.
Now, a little more than a week since the Harlow was halted, Cecil E. Metcalf, the deputy state forester for the division with jurisdiction in the San Joaquin valley, sums up the six day fight.  It will be weeks before the loss; totals in property, watershed and other damage can be assessed.

"This much I can say for sure," Metcalf says.  "In 35 years of firefighting, I've never encountered a situation like the one which faced us when the Harlow blew up north of Nipinnawasee.  I'd already radioed for reinforcements, but they arrived too late."
Suppression efforts have been criticized by many of those who lost their homes, and stoutly defended by those, who directed the battle. True, there were errors.  And there was confusion compounded by hysteria.
Communications broke down, and law enforcement agencies were hard pressed, with limited personnel, to keep everyone in the Fire's path apprised of what was going on.

"When the firestorm hit, everyone was on the state and federal radio networks, hollering for help," Metcalf said.  "Everyone wanted fire trucks and firemen.  We simply didn't have them available, because every man and each piece of  equipment was fighting the Harlow in the accepted way at the head."
Craig Chandler, a meteorologist for the forest service, is an expert on fire behavior.  He explains the pattern of the Harlow between 3 and 6 PM on July 11 this way;
"It was an extreme example of what can happen when fire, burning in dry fuels, combines with an unstable atmosphere. Atmospheric stability refers to the tendency of fires to form a chimney of hot gasses.
"When stability is high, fires have a low chimney, and burn slowly, like the flames in a fireplace with the damper partially closed. As the atmosphere becomes more unstable, the damper is opened and fires burn hotter and begin to create their own winds."
Winds at ground level that day were relatively calm.  But at 1,500 feet, they were blowing briskly from the north-west.  When the fire moved into heavy and dry brush near Metcalf Gap it flared up, creating its own convection column.
"This flo, filled with burning embers and debris, soared upward to meet the prevailing high velocity winds," Chandler says.  "Since these were moving to the southeast, spot fires were started ahead of the fire which, in turn, created more heat and more winds to start more spot fires.
"The result was a full scale, moving, firestorm with three distinct heads following  areas of heavy fuels, but all moving generally to the southeast.  One burned through Nipinnawasee, but broke down when the fuel type changed to open woodland.
"A second arm burned through Ahwahnee but also ran into light fuels before reaching Oakhurst.  The third head centered down Cock Creek and the Upper Fresno River, but was pulled to the south by spot fires building up on the slopes of Deadwood Mountains.
"By 6 PM the main fire-storm had lost its identity."
Every day during the course of the Harlow, Metcalf, Walter J. Puhn, the supervisor of the Sierra National FOrest, and their fire bosses and lieutenants held emergency meetings.  These were called at 4 and 10 AM and 4 and 10 PM.   Strategy was discussed, and errors noted. 
Many residents of the threatened communities wanted to start their own backfires when the firestorm started boiling up.  This was not allowed because, as Metcalf explains:
"There were several hundred firefighters ahead of the route such fires would have taken.  We could easily have lost them, along with their equipment."
Metcalf said Dr. S. M. Wagerselder, the director of the Ahwahnee Sanitarium, was notified of possible danger to the many buildings in the health center complex. He elected not to evacuate.
Firemen started backfires frantically in an effort to hold the main blaze and fire-storm away from Nipinnawasee and Ahwahnee. Residents hosed their roofs and house walls until pumps were stopped when power was lost.
On July 6th, four days before the Harlow, a public meeting was called by Jack Owens, the chief of the Oakhurst Volunteer Fire Department, at the Hilltop Bowling Alley.  Nearly 50 mountain residents gathered to hear a plea from Owens, Robert Voss, a fire prevention specialist from Fresno, and Stanley Hartwell, the Oakhurst Chamber of Commerce president, to fireproof their homes and outbuildings.
"We've been knocking on doors for more than a year,  trying to im press upon people the necessity of removing the grass and brush from around their homes," Owens is  quoted as saying.
Many of the homes were shaded by oak trees, which grew over roofs and against walls.  The trees became flaming pyres, and touched off many of  those structures lost in the Harlow.
"Considering the confusion and the many demands put on the fire suppression agencies, I think everyone concerned did a good job." Metcalf says. Puhn agrees adding:
"While there were instances of confusion, mistakes and failure, to take proper action among the forces mobilized , these were at a minimum for a disaster of this size.
"Metcalf deployed men and equipment in the most effective ways known to fire fighting agencies to halt a conflagration of this kind.  The great importance in the quick  control of this fire was that the communities of NOrth Fork, Bass Lake and Sugar Pine were spared the fate of Nipinnawasee and Ahwahnee.
"As proud as I am of our fire fighting forces, I cannot claim they could have done better in a situation of this kind."
It was not until after the disastrous firestorm that additional help arrived.  Twenty two civil defense trucks and personnel from throughout the state came too late to help the two communities.
"Maybe it was a good thing there were not more men and equipment in the path of the firestorm," Metcalf says. "Chances are we might have lost a good many of  both.  There were times when men and equipment were idle, but  this was not when the two towns burned.
"Hundreds of sightseers tried to get past road blocks, and this added to the officers' probelms.  As a result, many residents were stopped from returning to their homes."
transcribed by c feroben

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November 4, 2002