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Oral History Spotlight: Fighting Fire in Mill Valley

In this series, we spotlight oral histories from our collection. The Mill Valley Oral History Program is an ongoing collaboration between the Mill Valley Historical Society and the Mill Valley Public Library. We gather the stories and opinions of individuals from the community and preserve them for posterity. You can explore this collection of over 250 interviews by visiting us in the History Room at the Library. A growing number of interviews is also available online. In this post, Library Assistant Marissa Friedman explores how fire and the threat of fire have impacted Mill Valley over time.

Mill Valley is no stranger to the threat of fire. Less than a hundred years ago, the city found itself in the midst of one of Marin County’s most historic infernos. The 1929 fire as seen from Sausalito appeared apocalyptic—a monstrous funnel of thick gray smoke wound its way up into the sky, blighting the normally idyllic landscape of Richardson’s Bay. First spotted near the “Garden of Allah” estate and the Mountain Railway’s Double Bow Knot, the fire began on July 2nd - a hot, dry, gusty summer day. The flames spread quickly through the mountainside’s dry brush and soon raced down the slope towards Mill Valley.

Firefighters and volunteers from all over the Bay Area flooded into Mill Valley to meet the encroaching flames. Frank Canepa had planned to open his brand new store in the city on July 2nd. According to his oral history, he had just stepped off the train in Mill Valley when he was drafted into the volunteer fire fighting force and sent to the front lines of the blaze in his brand new suit. The Mill Valley Record reported on the ensuing chaos and despair:

“People wept in the street, one house after another explodes before them, sending bricks flying like missiles and leaving only charred chimneys. Below the horror, Mill Valleyans wrap beds, cribs, chairs and anything else they could hope to save in blankets. Possessions are strapped to the tops of Model A's and T's” (City of Mill Valley).

Mill Valley residents fought valiantly to save what they could, but the wall of flames moved quickly and with ghastly efficiency. William Provines described the scene in his oral history: “The whole Middle Ridge was nothing but a red mass of fire. You'd be downtown and hear someone say, ‘There goes my house,’ and he'd just stand there staring. When you see fifty, seventy-five or more houses going up at once it is quite a spectacle. I think around 105 houses were burned” (Provines, 1973, p. 9). Most of downtown was only spared from the inferno by a fortuitous change in the wind’s direction.

The fire, which burned for three days, left Mill Valley financially and psychologically reeling. A young girl at the time of the fire, Jean Barnard recalled having nightmares and anxiety for months following the disaster: “I was personally terrified by the fire. I was ten [or] 11 years old, and it was the first time in my life I ever wanted to leave Mill Valley and go back to New York” (Barnard, 1979, p. 10-11). In her oral history, Patricia Fleming recollected, “It was a terrible thing … to watch beautiful Mill Valley burning. And with something like that, you don't know where it's going to end. As you look back on it—well, the town was saved, the houses were demolished but eventually they were rebuilt, and the trees have grown. But at the moment it was a terrifying thing” (Fleming, 1979, p. 9). Causing over a million dollars in property damage and resulting in more than 100 homes lost, as well as the near total demolition of the mountain railroad, such a scale of destruction was unprecedented in the city’s history. It remains the fourth largest and the most financially ruinous fire to date in Marin’s history.

The disaster ushered in a new era for Mill Valley’s firefighting efforts. In his oral history, Thomas Bagshaw described his experience as a volunteer firefighter during the 1929 blaze and attributed the city’s subsequent efforts to professionalize its fire department to the city’s lack of fire preparedness exposed by the conflagration. The Mill Valley Fire department had maintained a mostly volunteer membership since its founding in 1890, although it had vastly improved its training and equipment since then. Following the fire, the department instituted more paid trained firemen as well as a paid fire chief.

The Lucretia Little History Room holds in its collection the oral histories of three long-time Mill Valley firefighters: Greg Moore and Jeff Davidson, both former Mill Valley fire chiefs, and Michael St. John, who rose to the rank of battalion chief for the Mill Valley Fire Department. Moore began his career as a volunteer firefighter before getting hired by the Mill Valley Fire Department in 1975. Davidson began his 35-year career with the Mill Valley Fire Department in 1979 after a few years of volunteer work with another department. St. John joined the Marin County Fire Department in 1985, and was hired full-time at the Mill Valley Fire Department in 1987. Davidson and St. John both come from a long lineage of firefighters in Marin – Davidson’s grandfather was a member of the Mill Valley Volunteer Firefighters, an organization which predated the incorporation of Mill Valley in 1901, and St. John’s parents both served as volunteer firefighters for the Inverness Volunteer Fire Department.

These interviews provide fascinating insights into the development of Mill Valley’s fire department and firefighting efforts since the 1970s. While early in Moore’s career firefighters were mostly self-taught and learned on the job, firefighters today have access to a large variety of multi-agency, county, and national professional training opportunities and certification options, and follow new firefighting practices and safety measures. Moore notes, for example, how modern building regulations, enabling ordinances, and the use of fire-safe construction materials drastically reduced the number of house fires over the decades.

St. John and Davidson emphasize how the introduction of formal education pathways and conferences facilitated networking and information exchange among firefighters from different departments, spurring the creation of cooperative training and service programs that greatly benefited the Mill Valley Fire Department. Fire departments across Marin consolidated their efforts, discarding the old territorial lines which divided firefighting districts, delayed response times, and stirred up rivalries among departments.

Thanks to California’s development of a state-of-the-art mutual aid system, Mill Valley firefighters have fought wildland fires up and down the state. The Mill Valley Fire Department also joined the Southern Marin Emergency Medical Paramedic System (SMEMPS), which increased efficient and speedy access to life-saving services. Since the 1990s, thanks to a publicly-funded measure, the department has carried out massive vegetation clearance and management programs, invested in public education initiatives, maintained fire roads, instituted a designated parking program, and more. Particularly near and dear to Moore’s heart was the fight to maintain and provide public access to the city’s labyrinth of steps, lanes, and paths, a major element of the city’s fire preparedness strategy.

Moore’s oral history painted paints the picture of a department which, over the span of the last few decades, has dedicated itself to innovation, training, and professionalism, collaborating with residents and local government to improve the city’s fire prevention and preparedness. But for all of the fantastic modernization and improvement in firefighting training, technology, ordinances, and practices, no one knows better than the city’s own professionals that the threat to Mill Valley remains extremely high.

The Fire Department’s success is dependent in large part upon the degree to which the community takes seriously the threat and works cooperatively to contain it, as St. John and Davidson make clear in their joint oral history. The same vegetation that provides the city with its beautiful, pristine landscapes is also highly susceptible to—and even thrives on—fire. Decades of fire suppression across Marin County have created a tinderbox just waiting for a spark. As California’s climate grows hotter and the fire season stretches ever longer, Mill Valley’s flammable landscape becomes increasingly at risk. With steep slopes, narrow and clogged roadways, and dense populations living among plenty of vegetation, Mill Valley’s geography and demography present serious problems for fire preparedness and reduce emergency responders’ access to residents.

Responding to this threat requires interventions in everything from mandating sprinkler systems to clearing trees from densely forested streets, but most importantly, it requires community engagement, a key theme of St. John and Davidson’s interview. The complex undertaking of fire prevention and preparedness is often not clear to residents, producing resistance to imposed fire safety measures. As Moore declares in his oral history, “A little town like Mill Valley but the infrastructure to improving the water system and cutting the vegetation and not allowing wood shingles, just all the things you need to do to keep the town safe, a lot of people don’t really understand that” (Moore, 2013, p. 9).

St. John describes his role in organizing and training members of the Community Emergency Response Team beginning in the 1990s, while Davidson points to the success of initiatives such as the Get Ready Program designed for 5th graders, a model which has since expanded beyond Mill Valley, and other programs designed to produce generational change in residents’ attitudes towards fire preparedness. Despite the efforts of fire personnel, city government, and a core of passionate Mill Valley residents, these former firefighters cite the general lack of awareness of the fire risk as the largest stumbling block to engaging the community at large in keeping the city safe. According to Davidson, “as a chief at the 30000-foot level, my biggest tactical challenge was trying to get the community to acknowledge the problems that existed” (Davidson and St. John, 2019, p. 17).

Fire officials today warn residents to be proactive and prepared for the next big one. Mill Valley Fire Chief Tom Welch remarked in a 2017 Marin Magazine article, “It’s just human nature that if people haven’t seen it or felt it, touched it or tasted it, they don’t think it can happen. Fire is something people see on TV. I wish we had folks who were alive back in 1929 and experienced the Mill Valley Fire. They could tell people now, ‘This is no joke. It really could happen. Here’” (Fish, 2017). Fortunately for Mill Valleyans, the oral history, manuscript, and book collections at the Mill Valley Public Library offers a wealth of voices which document the city’s past and present relationship to fire, from first-hand accounts of Mill Valley’s Great Fire to reflections on the state of the city’s fire preparedness over time. Visit the Lucretia Little History Room to learn more!

Oral Histories

(all available in the Lucretia Little History Room and online)

Oral History of Frank Canepa, by Jean Mosher (Mill Valley Public Library, 1977).
Oral History of Greg Moore, by Michelle Peterson (Mill Valley Public Library, 2013).
Oral History of Jean Barnard, by Carl Mosher (Mill Valley Public Library, 1973).
Oral History of Jeff Davidson and Mike St. John, by Debra Schwartz (Mill Valley Public Library, 2019).
Oral History of Patricia Fleming, by Carl Mosher (Mill Valley Public Library, 1979).
Oral History of William Provines, by Carl Mosher (Mill Valley Public Library, 1973).

Articles and Websites

City of Mill Valley. “Department History.” Retrieved from http://www.cityofmillvalley.org/fire/administration/history.htm.
Peter Fish, “The Fire This Time,” (Marin Magazine, March 17, 2017), https://www.marinmagazine.com/the-fire-this-time/.