Major Ojai Fires

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Posted by Drew Mashburn on November 1, 2018

Major Ojai Fires

Two of the town’s most devastating fires occurred in 1917. The first was started by campers in the Matilija Canyon on June 16. It reportedly killed five people and burned sixty buildings, leaving many residents homeless. The Foothills Hotel was destroyed as were the Baptist and Catholic churches, Bristol School and the homes of Robertson and Van Patten on Foothill Road, and Sinclair and Farnum on Fairview Road.

The Foothills Hotel, completed 1903, burned in fire of 1917.

The Foothills Hotel, completed 1903, burned in fire of 1917.

On November 28 of the same year, a gasoline stove in Miss Elvie Peasley’s store in the Arcade exploded and the resulting fire burned the west half of the Arcade business district. Citizens tried to help by carrying merchandise from the stores and stacking it in the street. In their haste to save it, however, much of it was destroyed. The Arcade, itself, was not destroyed.

Gents hosing down the November 28, 1917 Arcade fire with what looks to be a garden-hose.

Gents hosing down the November 28, 1917 Arcade fire with what looks to be a garden-hose.

Men standing in the rubble of the Novemeber 28, 1917 Arcade fire.

Men standing in the middle of the rubble of the burned stores at the Arcade.

Gent in the smoldering rubble of the November 28, 1917 Arcade fire. Most likely, this is looking somewhat north towards Matilija Street.

Gent in the smoldering rubble of the November 28, 1917 Arcade fire. Most likely, this is looking somewhat north towards Matilija Street.

Fire damaged items piled on Ojai Avenue from the November 28, 1917 Arcade Fire.

Fire damaged items piled on Ojai Avenue from the November 28, 1917 Arcade Fire.

Items removed from the stores, then place onto Ojai Avenue due to the November 28, 1917 Arcade fire.

Items removed from the stores, then placed onto Ojai Avenue due to the November 28, 1917 Arcade fire.

Looking towards the November 28, 1917 Arcade fire from Ojai Avenue.

Looking towards the November 28, 1917 Arcade fire from Ojai Avenue.

1917 Arcade Fire (#6)

Glen Hickey, who had recently taken over the old Barrows place of business, reportedly left his hardware store open so people could get equipment with which to fight the fire. Volunteers quickly grabbed what tools they needed, tossing money into the register. Later, when Hickey counted the cash drawer, he became convince that there was more money in it than there should be. It was after these two fires that Edward Libbey, shocked into awareness of the inadequacy of the firefighters’ equipment, gave the community a fire truck.

In 1932, an eleven-day forest fire burned acres and acres of brush.

1932 Matilija Fire

1932 Matilija Fire

A fire, said to be the most devastating since the June 1917 fire, roared toward the Ojai Valley in 1948. Fifteen hundred firefighters fought this blaze that burned 30,000 acres and consumed thirteen homes. This fire started near the pool at Wheelers Resort when a butane pipe burst. Orchid Town and Cal Prep (the old Foothills Hotel) were just some of the properties that were badly scorched in that fire.

The Second Foothills Hotel. The hotel was, eventually, sold to Cal Prep to be used as a school for boys.

The Second Foothills Hotel. The hotel was, eventually, sold to Cal Prep to be used as a school for boys.

In 1985, fire terrorized the valley once again. This blaze, called the Wheeler Fire, started on an extremely hot July 1 and wasn’t contained until fifteen days later. Remarkably, after burning 120,000 acres, only twelve homes were lost. Numerous outbuildings burned, however, and the damage to citrus was estimated at over $300,000. More than fifty of the 3,000 firefighters who came to help were injured in this blaze.

1985 Wheeler Canyon Fire

Actress June Allyson at her Foothill Road home during the 1985 Wheeler Fire.

Actress June Allyson at her Foothill Road home during the 1985 Wheeler Fire.

The Wheeler Fire, a suspected arson fire that started near Wheeler Hot Springs, prompted evacuations all over the valley as the fire, heightened each evening by strong, hot winds, threatened homes and property. This author was personally involved with evacuations and threats of evacuation for four nights. We evacuated friends along the Ventura River bank one night. We took in refugees from the Drown tract the next night and Siete Robles the night after that. One late night, we were awakened by neighbors in West Hills. Our homes were being bombarded by giant, glowing embers.

When the nightmare was over, grateful citizens posted large signs all over the valley offering thanks to the firemen. Later that year, a huge boulder was placed at the “Y” with a plaque honoring the firefighters.

This large boulder with its bronze plaque was set at the "Y" intersection to honor the firefighters that worked to save the Ojai Valley from the 1985 Wheeler Canyon Fire.

This large boulder with its bronze plaque was set at the “Y” intersection to honor the firefighters that worked to save the Ojai Valley from the 1985 Wheeler Fire.

This bronze plaque is attached to a large boulder that was placed on the north side of the "Y" intersection.

This bronze plaque is attached to a large boulder that was placed on the north side of the “Y” intersection.

In 2006, one of the largest fires in California history broke out in the Sespe Wilderness on Labor Day, September 4. Called the Day Fire, it burned until October 13, charring 162,702 acres. Though only eleven structures burned, ten of them outbuildings, the fire came perilously close to Upper Ojai homes and ranches, and for weeks residents were on alert.

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