The fire erupted unseen in dried-out brush, and wind drove it through Mountain Center before the first fire crew arrived. As flames raced down the mountainside after quickly consuming nearly two dozen cabins, a smoke plume rose that was visible all over Southern California. Highway 74 was shut down.

When the wind died down, stopping the fire front short of the valley floor, that freed the flames to spread across slopes to the north and south. Steep terrain drew the expanding fire back up the mountainside toward Idyllwild, while a parade of evacuees escaped to the flatlands. Finally, cooperative weather and a valiant stand on the fire lines halted it. Miraculously, no fatalities or serious injuries were reported. Once again, as it always has, the charmed village escaped incineration by wildfire.

No, I’m not describing the Mountain Fire. It was 70 years ago, around 2 a.m. one November Sunday, that a blaze erupted in May Valley during a 60-mph Santa Ana wind. Under cover of darkness it got an hour’s head start before the ranger’s wife at Keen Camp station phoned Idyllwild district headquarters.

About 4 a.m., the Morris and Wassell families spotted three widely scattered fires, one of them approaching just across Highway 74 from their ranches below Mountain Center. They frantically defended their homes but lost a barn, horses and other livestock. Just before daybreak Idyllwild lost phone service, then electrical power.

As the morning wore on, ash blanketed Hemet and San Jacinto, and the sun dimmed as far away as Elsinore. San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Dewitt Nelson took charge as incident commander and set up a base camp at Cranston Ranger Station. Firefighters converged from federal, state and local fire stations in the region and from the county prison camp at Banning, but most were troops from wartime military bases in the area.

Later in the day, after the first wave of flame through Keen Camp bypassed it, the famed Tahquitz Lodge at the site of today’s Living Free sanctuary fell prey to flying firebrands the erratic winds sent aloft. The main lodge and more than 20 cottages were quickly destroyed, ending nearly 40 years of illustrious resort history.

By late afternoon the east wind died down. Fire began to climb the back side of South Ridge out of May Valley and from the deep river canyon northward into the Strawberry and North Fork drainages, converging toward Idyllwild from two sides. A CHP officer escorted 100 carloads of residents to Hemet and San Jacinto hotels.

All through Sunday night and Monday, crews prepared defenses on South Ridge and Strawberry Creek. Their crucial stand was at about the 4,000 foot level between Strawberry Creek and North Fork. By Tuesday evening the fire was under control except for a blaze working its way down rugged South Fork Canyon.

Ultimately 9,800 acres burned, and property damage, including the Keen Camp Post Office and a gas station and store, approached $100,000 ($1,350,000 in today’s dollars). But Idyllwild was untouched. Lake Hemet’s watershed remained largely intact. A few cottages at Tahquitz Lodge survived, soon to be incorporated into the new Tahquitz Meadows YWCA Camp. And even in hard-hit Mountain Center, a Standard station and café were intact along with living quarters of the family that operated them.

By an odd coincidence, official word from Washington arrived just a day before the fire approving a permanent move of the post office to Mountain Center, where a garage newly remodeled for the purpose was destroyed. So mountain mail deliverer Winnie Phillips temporarily housed it in her newly acquired, intact Mountain Center home, though the official name “Keen Camp” was retained