The 1960 Donner Ridge Fire is known as one of the most destructive local fires in modern history, but original letters recently obtained by the Truckee Donner Historical Society outline the devastation felt by survivors.

“It was a severe blow to lose my cheerful, comfortable mountain home,” wrote Jessie Payen in a letter to a friend just weeks after the devastating fire.

“Every building was burned. A rancher from Loyalton came with his little truck and saved the few things we did get out — the T.V., the large painting of the elk, and two old rockers and four chairs and dining table. Earlier in the day we saw them evacuating people and their furniture at Hobart Mills.”  


The letter, which was one of four received by the historical society in September after the Donner Memorial State Park forwarded them on, describes the scene from that late-August night.

“We had to leave there and go to Loyalton later in the night when the mountain at the head of Sardine began to burn. Our smaller steers, 37 head, were in the corrals,” Payen wrote on Sept. 10, 1960. “I told the girls to get out and I, too, and scared them good, and all we saw as we drove on was a dust up the canyon. They would have been burned if they had stayed there, as it burned both sides of the canyon there.”

Heidi Sproat, a volunteer with the Truckee Donner Historical Society, said the letters are important because they document a particular incident in a survivor’s words. While there are media accounts of that fire, Sproat said it is special to have these letters, which were almost thrown out by the Donner Museum.

“You don’t know what you have until you look at it,” Sproat said. “This particular one talks about the human side of fire destruction and how vigilant we have to be in fire prevention.”

Sproat said the letters will be kept by the historical society and designated as an artifact or ephemera, which are items of collectible memorabilia. Katie Holley, another historical society volunteer, obtained the letters and transcribed them. While the relationships between the letter writers is unclear, the devastation of the loss from the fire comes through.

“The first 10 days I felt as if I had been put through a wringer but now I am getting along all right,” wrote Payen, who had just lost her husband the year prior. “It is hard to realize that a way of life in the summer months has been wiped out completely after so many years.”

The Donner Ridge Fire began on Aug. 20, 1960, when a spark came off the blade of a bulldozer working on the new Interstate 80 above Truckee. The blaze scorched nearly 45,000 acres, Truckee’s largest fire to date. The fire was controlled by Aug. 28.

Sproat said the ironic part of receiving the letters was the timing.

“It’s ironic that the very day we are hearing reports about the Butte and Valley fires, we are transcribing letters about a fire that happened here 55 years ago,” Sproat said.


  • Kara Fox

    When she’s not writing or editing the news section for Moonshine Ink, Kara Fox can be seen hiking in the spring, paddle boarding in the summer, mushroom hunting in the fall, snowshoeing in the winter, and hanging out with her 7-year-old son year-round.

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