Pam Miller was in the house and Roy Laird was out working on the other side of his 20-acre Holmes Ranch property on his four-wheeler last Tuesday night a little before 7pm when they both heard “a slapping, popping sound.” Laird’s old barn, which he had painstakingly converted into a mechanic’s shop and garage over the past 20 years was on fire.
Laird rushed back to find flames consuming one whole corner of the building.
“The windows in front were already disintegrating,” said Laird, “and the fire had melted the skylight and was destroying the ceiling and the roof.”
Laird hurried to the back of the building. “I tried to see if I could do something from the back door, which was open. But by that time the whole building was full of flames,” he said. “It was a wall of flame. By this time the building was going up like the head of a match.”
So Laird, an experienced volunteer firefighter and mechanic, backed off and hooked up hoses to his house just to the south of the barn but downhill from it. Containment of the blaze, Laird realized, was essential. The area around the Laird-Miller home was mowed but red-hot embers were floating ominously out over a wide area, headed for the brush and trees to the east and south. Hot spots had already ignited patches of nearby dry grass. Laird rushed to put them out with a garden hose.
“I have a lot of experience fighting these kinds of fires and I didn’t waste time on the shop once I realized it was gone,” the popular, long-time Navarro resident said. “I went on to what I could save. I’m thankful for all that experience and training — I had the firebreak between the trees and the house. I saved the house by keeping it from spreading in those first minutes. And I got the truck moved.”
People on the nearby Pinoli Ranch across 128 had already called in the fire. They rushed over and started helping subdue the spot fires. Then the AV volunteers showed up. And a CDF crew arrived. A fire engine was stationed to protect the house, but there was a pretty good breeze blowing embers beyond the house towards Mill Creek, and a wildland fire down near stream had begun. Spot fires were breaking out everywhere.
CDF brought in an air tanker and their big dozer and quickly contained the wildfire down by the creek. They put it out just before it got to the garden only yards from the Miller-Laird house. Some spot fires started in the garden and firefighters ran to put those out.
“It was a scary situation,” said Laird in the understatement of the week.
Once the conflagration seemed to have been beaten back, Laird noticed burns on his hands and wrists. “I didn’t even know I was burned at the time,” said Laird. “I was so hyped up and busy. I don’t know how I got those burns.”
He was sent to the hospital in Ukiah by ambulance for treatment of minor burns and smoke inhalation.
When Laird and Miller got back from the Ukiah hospital at about 10:30pm, the fire trucks were just leaving. A skeleton CDF crew stayed until well after midnight cleaning up and guarding against a renewed outburst of flames.
“There was never any chance to save the shed by the time the fire got going,” said Laird. “The firefighters did a really good job of containment. After the house was safe, I was relieved. They also kept the fire from getting into the trees down by the creek. That was significant. If it had got to those trees it would have been very bad. It did get to one of the oak trees, but they got that one and that was the only tree that was lost.”
Then Laird had to face the fact that his shop — a life-long collection of motorcycles, engines, tools, parts and supplies — was gone.
“I lost nine motorcycles, five of them antique Harley-Davidsons,” Laird lamented, the loss audible in his voice. “They are irreplaceable. I lost almost all of my shop tools and equipment. I had some classic old tools — I was a tool collector as well. Plus I lost a lot of motorcycle parts and supplies.”
Laird’s shop was a converted 32 x 36 redwood barn with a loft on each end.
“We also lost our camper, which was parked in front of the building. We saved the pickup — we had taken the camper off just last Sunday.” The couple also lost a sturdy old farm tractor. “And I lost the Chevy El Camino project-car that was parked in front… It was bad.”
Laird has insurance but, “It’s not nearly enough to cover the entire loss. Plus the stuff with sentimental value can’t be replaced.”
“My father was a carpenter,” mused Laird, “and when he died in 1974 I inherited all his classic old tools. They were in there and were all lost.”
Most of the aluminum melted and a lot of the steel was twisted and distorted by the heat.
“It’s basically a total write off,” Laird conceded. “It’s just devastating. It was my shop. Drill press, table saw, grinders, hydraulic press, painting equipment, power tools, machine tools, the big heavy-duty air compressor and air tools, farm equipment parts and supplies. I had a lot of special tools for special tasks. Some of them I made just for a particular task. I’ve had some of that stuff since I was a kid.”
A lot of Laird’s livelihood was also lost. “But I still have my two tool boxes which had mostly farm equipment in them. One was at work, another was in the car. So those are the only tools I have left now.”
“It was a mechanic’s shop,” Laird explained, “so there was a solvent tank with a lid on it, some motor oil, some paint cans… I had some used rags in a special can outside. I’m an experienced firefighter; I spent 14 years as a volunteer and I know how to handle and store that stuff. I went out of my way to make it safe. That couldn’t have had anything to do with the fire. I have to assume it was electrical, but I don’t think we’ll ever know. Nothing was on, very few things were even plugged in. The investigator said it was ‘a black hole’.”
“The fire has stopped me for a while,” said Laird. “It’s really strange. The next day we had a water line that was leaking so I asked Pam [Miller] to get a cap and some glue at Jack’s, but then I realized I didn’t even have a hacksaw or anything to cut the pipe with. I don’t even have a claw hammer to my name. It was almost everything I own. As a mechanic you get really close to that stuff. You take it for granted. You reach for a tool and… I don’t know…” his voice trailed off.
Laird said his most vivid memory was “standing there with a water hose in my hand, looking at the burning shop and it was like… like… That shop was my life. It’s gone. It’s all gone.”
“But I have to add that there were neighbors who showed up with shovels to help fight the fire,” the grateful Deepender said, trying to avoid thinking about the enormity of his loss. “And we’ve had lots of people come over and call since the fire, offering the use of tools and equipment, and money and food, and a place to take showers if we need it… The generosity of the community has just been wonderful. It keeps us going. People are talking about a barn-raising party. We’re going to have to replace it with something, but there’s no way we can afford to replace what it was. It won’t be nearly as nice as that old redwood barn… But it will definitely be more fire-resistant.”