On Labor Day the Albion River moved at less than a trickle. Gravel covered much of the riverbed and the tiny flow of water could be dammed to a halt with a few kicks of a boot. This is not a tributary of the river or somewhere on its north or south forks, just a mile east of tidewater on the main stem of the Albion.
Dry weather and a lack of water makes ranchers and farmers wary— wary of fire. This is truer today than fifty years or so ago when I was a small child. In those days when sheep grazed the hillsides north of the Albion River (our cattle grazed down river in those bygone times, on land leased from our large timber company neighbor), it was not uncommon on a foggy summer evening for my father to announce after dinner, “Good night for burning.”
Dad would select a relatively small patch of hillside, directly below another recently burned over area, a match would be lit, and my siblings and I were stationed around the upper reaches of the burn zone. When the flames reached the limits of that night’s burn boundaries we beat the fire out with freshly cut redwood branches.
In the 21st Century view of things that would be considered a crime. In reality what those small controlled burns did was provide better grazing land, burn off unwanted weeds such as poison oak, and provide a fire break for the forest beyond. In the two decades following World War Two the nearest fire lookout on Mathison Peak often was occupied by the watchful eye of Emma Mathison (same family the “peak” was named for). If smoke from a Macdonald burn caught her attention, she might call on the party line telephone— two longs. Usually, the Macdonalds rang her before a burn commenced, as did Clyde and Martha Anderson on Albion Ridge. The party line telephone came into being here at the Macdonald Ranch at the end of the 1940s, a year or two after PG&E put in electric poles that extended a mile from the Littleriver Airprt Road down to the ranch house of my youth. During the Great Depression and World War Two a farmer’s line of telephone connections ran from the Anderson Ranch at the northeast end of Albion Ridge down to the Albion River, crossing at my great uncle John Finley Robertson’s place then up the steep slope to the Mathison ranch. Another line ran from John Finley Robertson’s (readers may remember him from the true tale of the horse that shot Ben Frost dead on Little Lake Road) to our ranch then up the hill to connect to the handful of homes along the Littleriver prairie. The folks along that farmer’s line also provided mutual fire protection for one another until organized volunteer fire departments became permanent entities approximately a half century ago, in great part due to the behind the scenes work of Emery Escola, son of noted Mendocino County historian Nannie Flood Escola.
Reports about the burglaries at the Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department prove troubling. A Mendocino Beacon story about the incidents indicated that the Mendocino Fire Protection District pays for beer to be kept on hand at the department headquarters. The implications of tax dollars paying for alcohol for firemen would besmirch a hardworking bunch of folks who volunteer their time to provide the public lifesaving services. According to Mendocino Volunteer Fire Department Chief Ed O’Brien the beer in question is paid for out of the firemen’s own funds.