In Sonoma Valley, as in many parts of California, fire is an important part of the environment. Before European settlement, the inhabitants of the area used fire as a tool of landscape management. In fact, what the early Spanish and American colonizers saw as an unaltered wilderness had been shaped and husbanded by humans for millennia, using fire and many other methods.

“At the time of Euro-American contact, California was more densely populated than any area of equal size in North America, north of central Mexico. Long before Europeans mapped the region, California’s tallest mountain peaks, its largest lakes, longest rivers, and its oldest trees all had names. The state’s promontories, declivities, and unusual rock formations were infused with human meaning. What is labeled as “wilderness” in today’s popular imagination and on current topographical maps actually harbored human gathering and hunting sites, burial grounds, work sites, sacred area, trails and village sites. Today’s wilderness was then human homeland.” (A World of Balance and Plenty, Land, Plants, Animals and Humans in a Pre-European California. M. Kat Anderson, Michael G. Barbour, and Valerie Whitworth; in Contested Eden, California Before the Gold Rush, UC Press, 1998.)

The first catastrophic fire in Sonoma Valley (that we know of) happened in September of 1923.



The “Boyes Springs Valley Vol. Fire Dept.” was about all they had in the way of first responders in 1923.

In 1964 and 1996, air tankers were vital to suppressing the fires. None existed in 1923, of course, but the Northwest Pacific Railroad sent a fire fighting crew, and mutual aid came from as far away as San Francisco.

It’s often stated of the 1923 fire that Boyes Springs and Fetters were completely destroyed. This is not the case. Many buildings survived. Since rebuilding was so urgently done, starting in October of 1923, it is often difficult to determine if a house or business survived the fire, but there is documentary evidence for some, such as the Sam’s Grill building. Please see https://springsmuseum.org/history/photographs/boyes-hot-springs/

In 1936 the community built, partially with Federal funds, a new fire station.



The text on the back of a WPA photo of the fire house inaccurately says it was named after the Valley of The Moon (it is so named because it is in the Valley of the Moon). However, it accurately states that the area has an “unusually large fire hazard…” See “The Living New Deal” https://livingnewdeal.org/projects/boyes-springs-sonoma-county-fire-station-sonoma-ca/ . It is a great project.

The building still stands in 2017, though greatly altered.

The next fire disaster occurred in 1964.


The 1964 fire was the worst since 1923. Hundreds of firefighters with dozens of engines and a lot of air support kept the damage lower than it would have been earlier in the century.

The 1996 Cavedale Fire, though small in comparison, stirred memories of 1964 in many Sonoma Valley residents.


The 1996 fire was kept far smaller than ’23 or ’64 by the large number of firefighters and equipment quickly brought to bear.

In the Index Tribune of August 13, 1996, Harry Martin, a CDF officer, listed the following fire prone areas: Cavedale Rd., Nuns Canyon, Grove St., Seventh St. E., and Lovall Valley Rd. All but Grove St. are within the 2017 fire boundaries.

On Sunday, August 4, 1996, as the Cavedale Fire was being mopped up, a dangerous brushfire broke out in Boyes Hot Springs, adjacent to Central Avenue. Crews already fighting the big fire were able to subdue the Boyes blaze.


Jeff Baker’s Moon Mountain Road house survived the 1996 fire and the 2017 fire, as it was designed to do.

IT1996CavedaleFire9JeffBaker copy


Fires in Sonoma Valley

Date started
Buildings destroyed
Number of firefighters
1923 9/16 10,000 2 days Napa County, Nuns Canyon/bee keepers at least 119 unknown
1964 9/19 10,000 4 days Nellligan Road/possibly power lines 27 600
1996 8/2 2100 3 days Cavedale Road/PGE accepted responsibility 4 1500
2017 Nuns Fire only 10/8 30,000 Sonoma Valley 98% contained on 10/29 Glen Ellen/under investigation over 600 At least 6,000 for all Sonoma County fires

The Sonoma Fire Project Wants Your Stories!

The Sonoma Valley Historical Society invites residents of the Sonoma Valley, the Springs, Glen Ellen and north to Kenwood to submit stories and photographs about how they and their families were affected by the October fires. These will be archived at the Historical Society in a special collection called “The Sonoma Fire Project” and will be used for research, local journalism, and possibly future publications.

If you’d like to submit your story and photos, send them to sonomafireproject@gmail.com. You can write in the body of the email, or attach a Word document. Photos can be attached in any format. It will also be helpful to have the following information:

Where you live (you don’t have to give an exact address, the general location is fine)
How long you have lived in the Sonoma Valley
Why you came here
What kind of work you do
Mailing address and phone number

The museum will send you a form to sign indicating that you give permission for your story and your photos to be used by researchers and journalists. Your name will always be associated with what you write and what you photographed.

We are doing this project to document the individual, personal side of this great regional tragedy, and are grateful to everyone who wants to participate.

If you have any questions, just send them along to project manager Lynn Downey at sonomafireproject@gmail.com.