Remembering the Harlow Fire

September 16, 2020

For The Madera Tribune
The front page of the Madera Tribune was dominated by the Harlow Fire of 1961.

Creek Fire turns the pages of history


Seventy-eight-year-old George Kipp knew he and his 65-year-old wife, Etta May, were in trouble. A huge wildfire was headed their way, and they were stuck on Round House Road, a dirt road with a high center, two miles above Ahwahnee.


While George was trying to free the car, his wife decided to try to outrun the flames. She didn’t make it; the fire caught them with a fury. George burned to death in the driver’s seat, and Etta May died of asphyxiation a few feet down the road.  


That happened in 1961, and today, as Maderans remain riveted to reports on the Creek fire, which is raging closer and closer, many are remembering another fire that swept across Madera County creating death, chaos, and destruction almost sixty years ago. It is known as the infamous Harlow Fire. 


The Harlow Fire, the one that killed the Kipps, burned over 43,000 acres and destroyed the towns of Ahwahnee and Nipinnawasee, along with over 100 homes. At the time, it was the fastest running wildfire on record.


That disaster started on June 10, 1961, and ran for five days. The worst came on July 11 and 12. Racing south from the Harlow ranch on Usona Road, when it got to Deadwood Mountain at the edge of Highway 41, it took just 17 seconds to climb from the base of that peak to the top — 4,500 feet. By the time it began its descent down the south side of Deadwood, it was finally brought under control. Then, people began to reflect on what they had just been through.


The first reflection came from the recordings of the California Department of Forestry. Green Mountain Lookout had called Mariposa with a smoke report on July 10. It was coming from Stumpfield Mountain near the Harlow ranch. When CDF got someone on the scene, he found a 2-1/2 acre brush fire burning toward Indian Peak. Within two hours it had run 18,000 acres toward Nipinnawasee, Ahwahnee, Oakhurst, Coarsegold, and Bass Lake. 


In broad terms, the Harlow Fire ran from the Chowchilla River to Deadwood Peak at Highway 41. Having started on Monday, by Tuesday at noon, it had outflanked firefighters at the Miami Mountain fire line. In another couple of hours, 600 men, including a California State Prison crew and two CA Youth Authority crews were trying to battle the blaze. 


Just about that time, Priscilla Pike was trying to reach her home near Ahwahnee. Driving on Hwy. 41, she tried to turn north onto Hwy. 49, and she was stopped and told she could go no further — horses and cows or not.


Meanwhile, Jack Gyer was on 49 trying to go the other way — trying to get to 41; he knew exactly what was happening. He was driving 50 mph, and the fire was staying right behind him. 
Sometime in the middle of Tuesday afternoon, Lee Shackleton of the CA Park Service heard the level of excitement on the radio begin to build.


“We could hear panic in the voices of the fire fighters calling their crews back,” he said.  
The fire was beginning to build and take a run.


“Pull out; evacuate; run; Get the equipment out of here; this fire is running,” came the order.
Toward the end of the work day on Tuesday in Oakhurst, Ken Kirby, who worked there, was on his way to his home on Usona Road. Somehow he got a little way up Hwy. 49 and was stopped. The officer commandeered his services and instructed him to remain there and turn anyone else who showed up on that road to turn around. Needless to say he was eminently unsuccessful. By that time all of the south part of Hwy 49 was a mess.


An hour or so later, as Kirby stood his post, smoke and flames bounded over the mountain north of him. Then came the fire engines with the drivers yelling, “Get out of here, the fire’s going faster than a man can run.”


Kirby did as he was told and turned around and followed them right out of there.
Not long after that, Shackleton, having left Yosemite, reached Hwy. 41 and Hwy 49. What he saw defied description.


“Our first observation on pulling into Oakhurst on 41 was absolute panic at Hwy 49 and 41. There were trucks, automobiles, every kind of vehicle you could imagine moving bumper to bumper driving as fast as they could. When they hit the intersection of Hwys 49 and 41, they spewed out in all directions.”


Alice Kirby was part of that frantic, mass exodus. “It kind of looked like The Grapes of Wrath to me,” she said, with belongings of every sort packed on every vehicle trying to escape.


On Tuesday night, the fire continued to run and then turn back on itself consuming what it had left behind in its race to Deadwood. Nipinnawasee and Ahwahnee were both destroyed, and by Wednesday, Oakhurst and Coarsegold were in the line of destruction. One tongue of the fire was licking at Gabby’s Junk Shop on 41. Another had reached just northeast of Oakhurst. 


On Thursday, however, the Harlow fire began to show signs of losing the fight. Once it reached the top of Deadwood and began to descend toward Hwy 41, the firefighters finally got a break. The wind died down, and they were able to contain it there. Other trouble spots such as Thornberry Mountain and the Yosemite Forks area were likewise met with success. 


Gov. Edmund Brown declared Madera County a disaster area, and the people turned their thoughts to recovery, and on Friday, July 14, the CDF reported that the Harlow Fire had been controlled and that lines were holding. 


In Oakhurst they held a community meeting to announce victory over the fire. Madera County Supervisor C.C. Clark told the audience, “We’ve been dealt a body blow, but we’re not down and out. We’ll rebuild better than before.”


This was the spirit of the people in Madera County’s fire-ravaged mountain area after they had withstood the worst wildfire in their history.

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