A look back at the 6,000 acre fire on Mt. Diablo in the year 1977

September 10, 2011 11:49 am · 27 comments

Friday night’s lightning-sparked fire on Mt. Diablo brought back many bad memories for those who were around 34-years-ago, because on August 2, 1977, after two years of drought and a day of horrible lightning, a fire started on Mt. Diablo that would end with devistating results.

Over 6,000 acres burned in a matter of days, and the entire North side of the mountain was blackened. 700 firefighters battled the blazes, along with a dozen cargo planes.

The first lightning strikes hit above the quarries on Mt. Zion, then the second bolt hit Twin Peaks, according to Bob Doyle, one of the founders of Save Mt. Diablo.

His group also had this to say in 2002, during a special write-up on the fire….

Altogether, the ‘77 fire burned to the summit, North Peak, Russelmann, into Perkins Canyon, into Ginochio above Walnut Creek, and was stopped at Juniper Camp. The real core was Mitchell, Back and Donner Canyons.

The year after, we had the most amazing display of flowers I had ever seen—it sterilized the soil in places and nothing grew, but pockets of fire poppy and golden eardrops were great. Some slopes were covered with millions of them. All the annual flowers were incredible, but as you went upslope, a lot of the east face of Eagle and Twin Peaks had nothing for several years.

Doyle says this wasn’t the only devistating fire on Mt. Diablo….

There have been more than a hundred fires on Diablo since 1891, when record keeping began. 1977’s fire was the second largest, after a five day fire July 3-7, 1931 which began in Blackhawk and eventually charred 25,000 acres. That fire burned the mountain’s south side. Three weeks later the north side burned.

Thanks to Seth Adams with Save Mount Diablo for the information, and to Bill Sattler & his family for the great photos.

1 Photo locations? September 10, 2011 at 11:58 AM

I am curious about the photo locations:
1) are the first 2 photos from the Lime Ridge area?
2) is the 3rd photo Back Creek area?
3) is the 4th photo taken from the Falls area or Mt. Olympia area?

my guesses may be totally off, but would be very interested to find out!

Thanks for sharing the photos!

2 Funny Man September 10, 2011 at 12:04 PM

devastating for whom? mama nature has been dealing with this kinda thing for millions of years without our interference… jus’ sayin’
i say let it burn, she will take care of the aftermath, just look at mt st helen. its kinda like building your house in a flood plane and than demanding the gubmint build levys.

3 LW September 10, 2011 at 12:05 PM

Oh yeah I remember that very well. Scary scary stuff.

4 Mark September 10, 2011 at 12:23 PM

Unrelated, but did anyone hear that small plane have engine trouble over Concord about 5 minutes ago? About 1218 hrs. He took a quick turn towards Buchanan field. Hope he landed.

5 mortimer September 10, 2011 at 1:09 PM

I was in Reno that day the fire started on Mt Diablo. My brother called me from Concord telling me how the mountain glowed that night from the fire.

6 Al Nonymous September 10, 2011 at 1:11 PM

@Photo Locations-
My guesses:
1) is in what’s now Dana Hills, looking directly at the base of Twin Peaks.
2) is from Kirker Pass road looking east & south towards Diablo, you can see the condos and the church to the left of the orange truck. It’s more built up there now, so it doesn’t look the same.
Of course, I could be mistaken.

7 Craig Cannon September 10, 2011 at 1:32 PM

I remeber watching the mountain burning at night from the hills above Lafayette. Had my CB radio and my High School girlfriend with me. It looked like a volcano at night. I took some awesome pictures I wanted to share with you, but three decades later I can’t find them. I’m a little older and forgetful these days!.

8 Mrs. Kravitz September 10, 2011 at 1:44 PM

I’m a relative new comer around here (car stalled in ’84 and I never left) so I never saw the burn area before. But I just wanted to say I love the flora of Back Canyon, it’s one my favorite parts of the mountain. And in lower Donner Canyon, all the trees are the same height. But it doesn’t seem like they would have had time to grow as high as they are. Are those trees all post-77?

9 Skyscraper September 10, 2011 at 1:49 PM

I remember the fire in 1977. It burned for several days and I watched it slowly engulf the mountain as it spread. Though true that no one wants to see the mountain burn, it is still mother nature’s way of renewing our habitat.

10 lg September 10, 2011 at 2:03 PM

How many days did that fire burn? I was 9 and the whole family would go out and lay out on the lawn and watch the fire. I know it was burning for at least a few days. Does anyone know how long it burned?

11 I heard the plane September 10, 2011 at 2:07 PM

Was a little worried.

12 Renee September 10, 2011 at 2:14 PM

I remember that fire vividly. It was so frightening. To see our beautiful mountain all ablaze and feeling so helpless. My mom had an emergency evacuation kit packed for us I think and was ready for us to go just in case. To this day, I hate fire like this. Scares me bad.

13 totempole September 10, 2011 at 2:41 PM

My husband was on the fireline running a bulldozer. I remember my brother there too gathering horses.

14 Chester September 10, 2011 at 2:41 PM

I was 16 years old and I watched it from the balcony of my brother’s apartment on Detroit Avenue (that’s back when it was safe in that area!). It was unbelievable watching it burn!

15 steve weir September 10, 2011 at 2:50 PM

I was working for Assemblyman Dan Boatwright when the fire occurred. I was able to tour the Mountain after the fire with State Fire Chief Marvin Dodge, Fire Chief Ray Morgan and Dr. Harold Biswell of UC. (Dr. Biswell was an expert on the roll of fire in our ecosystems.)

The three day fire burned slowly and jumped around the mountain.

According to Dr. Biswell, the mountain has had many fires and that new growth generated by such fires was healthy for the Mountain. Dodge said that the worse damage from the fire was created by the bulldozing of creek beds in trying to stop the fire.

If you go to Juniper (two miles from the top, you can see the progression of new growth from past fires.

No one likes fire, especially if it is damaging to people and structures (including animals). However, the 1977 fire did not seem to qualify as such a bad thing.

16 akajackson September 10, 2011 at 4:18 PM

@ Al Nonymous
I believe you are correct about photo #2. The rock on the left of the picture is still there today, surrounded by ivy and pine trees.

17 Tal September 10, 2011 at 4:20 PM

I remember this well, it was terrible, all the smoke from it. The mountain has never looked the same since, it was a deep green before the fire. Now its mostly brown with some green. I guess it will take a long time to get back to where it was before the big fire.

18 anonymous September 10, 2011 at 4:52 PM

Funny Man #2,

Devasting for all of the wildlife and for some ranch and home owners on the mountain. Any wildlife that ran up a tree perished, and smaller wildlife can’t outrun a fire like this. For wildlife survivors, whatever home they had in the fire area was gone as well as their food supply and trees or brush they counted on to survive. The devastation for ranch and homeowners would be obvious.

19 Mad Mom September 10, 2011 at 5:37 PM

I will never forget spending a few hours up on the mountain after the fire. I was taking a break from reading when a one eyed doe approached me. She was thirsty. I only had cranberry juice, but she drank it from my cupped hands. It was amazing. The ranger said that she lost her eye on a branch while running to escape the fire.
I had watched the fire burn from my apartment. I worry every time we have dry lightning.

20 Nut September 10, 2011 at 8:21 PM

Where’s Al Gore when you need him!!!
Outlaw lightning! Or tax it so badly it will go away.
What is Al Gore going to do about volcanos? They spew too much smoke into the air.
“choke” , Al save me

21 Bob Johnson September 10, 2011 at 8:34 PM

The 2nd photo looks like it is from Kirker Pass road.

22 Diospyros September 10, 2011 at 9:44 PM

That third photo does look like Back Canyon, one of my favorites too.

There’s a spot just above Deer Flat with a stand of large blackened skeleton trees. I call them the Sentinals; they are kind of eerie, and sad.

This wasn’t a good fire; we harm the mountain by not letting it burn regularly and naturally.

When decades of fuel burns at once it is too hot and fast moving. Seeds that have evolved to crack open in the heat of a regular fire are instead destroyed. Mature trees that would normally survive, revitalized with the fertilizer/ashes from the burnt undergrowth, are instead killed.

The whole ecosystem evolved in fire and we should be doing regular controlled burns. Even the wildlife has a chance if the fires are small and slow moving, vs. these 50-year conflagrations.

23 Art September 10, 2011 at 9:51 PM

Al Nonymous

#2 Is correct. On Kirker Pass & Olive Dr. Used to be Moser Trailer. Now it’s YV Stoarge.
If you use Google Earth. You can see the rock in street view. The trees block the view.
Lat. 37°57’21.12″N
Lon. 121°57’9.36″W

24 bob September 11, 2011 at 8:33 AM

Uh oh – devistating – and it’s misspelled twice. Spellcheck DOES work. Whatever wordsmith was involved in crafting this article needs to familiarize themselves with the feature.

25 Scoob September 11, 2011 at 8:43 AM

I was in my grandparent’s backyard on Olive Drive when I saw the lightening bolt strike the mountain. We spent that night on the roof watching the fire burn, and I have heard many friends were also on their roofs that night. The fire lit up the night like it was wartime. This was one of the most powerful events in the history of our region. The scars are still all over the mountain all these years later. When I see that mountain, I know I’m home.

26 Franky September 11, 2011 at 8:49 AM

I beg your pardon, but lightning struck Mt. Diablo on August 1st (not 2nd) in 1977. I happened to be on the telephone wishing my Grandmother a Happy 84th Birthday when I saw the lightning strike that started the whole thing! For days thereafter, we needed “passes” to come and go from our own homes, as the police were not letting anyone thru unless we could prove where we lived. Worried, we barely slept for 4 nights and didn’t see the sun again for almost a full week. Fire trucks from as far as Lake Tahoe, Oregon, Idaho, L.A., as well as parts east came to Clayton and joined in the fight, staged at Mt. Diablo Elementary School; all organized chaos; thrilling and very scary at the same time. The FD did a fabulous job in those terrible days…and our beautiful mountain rebounded from utter destruction………..

27 Iremember September 12, 2011 at 10:55 AM

I remember those fires. I was 15 waaaaay back then. We were in Hawaii visiting family and I got many letters saying that Mt Diablo was on fire and burning day and night. It was also the same summer Elvis died (at that’s what I remember). I was thankful on Friday when they got the fires out. I was afraid it would be a repeat of what happened in 1977.

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