Like Nevada City, treasures of Comstock are vulnerable

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Last week's fire in Nevada City is a frightening reminder of what could happen here, especially in Virginia City. The shared attics of the Comstock are no strangers to fire. They sit perched atop Main Street as if lying in wait to choke once again on the smoke and feel the sting of the flames.

I imagine some of the attics sport their scars like young punks do their tattoos.

The fires threaten to rob us of our past, to destroy what once was.

In Northern Nevada, where we've gone to the bank on the backs of heritage tourism, it's important we work to prevent and take measures to reduce the damage a stray spark would bring. For it's not a matter of if, but a matter of when.

The tiny ember stands poised to pick our pocket and to take what can't be given back. It's possible to rebuild and reconstruct. Heck, Las Vegas has added New York and Paris in the past decade, but you can't replace the memories of buildings more than 100 years old.

You never know what's behind the wall or under the plank. Things that are found in these nooks and crannies can tell us a lot about what happened once upon a time.

You can hammer and nail all you want, but there's no putting back the slanted floor or the crooked door. Did you know it takes only a slight tilt to make the vacuum chase you across the room?

Some things are priceless, like the bubbled glass that makes the world outside all wavy as if you're looking across the desert in mid-summer.

There's a lot to be said for modern-day construction -- heat at the touch of a dial, hot running water and indoor plumbing. But if you've ever lived in a historic home, where your brothers swear they saw ghosts and the stairs go up and down at impossible angles, you won't be quite as comfortable amid today's creature comforts.

I've lived in houses with: rock walls indoors, Ole O' Acres Gold Hill; slanted floors, Griners Bend; stairs that climb at 85-degree angles, Water Co. B Street; and ghosts (ask my brothers, I never saw anyone) the Spite House.

This last house had the fortunate circumstance of being 6 inches or so from its southern neighbor. Some sort of feud erupted after the first house, the house to the north, was built and the second house was put up next door.

I'm not quite sure which house is really the "spite house," but 6 inches is no exaggeration. The window of the first house looks on the second house which is no more than a foot away. The two houses are on D Street in Virginia City if you care to see for yourself. They're just one-half block south of the Mackay Mansion.

These are some of the treasures we try to protect when we spend millions preparing to fight fire.

In Nevada City, more than 75 firefighters responded to the blaze. I'm sure we'd get the same response on the hill, but have you ever seen a ladder truck pull Geiger Grade? It's not what you'd call an exercise in speed.

Firefighters no doubt would feel they'd get there faster if they got out and walked. It's not much better coming in from the south from Carson City up the truck route. But I'm sure the hundreds of thousands of dollars put into today's equipment mean there's been vast improvement since the days of the first bucket brigade.

Even in the 1800s they saw the need to protect themselves and developed a state-of-the-art system of hose sheds, water pumpers and water mains. (For more on this, visit the Firemen's Museum on C Street.)

But even with all of today's technology and knowledge we still haven't found a way to fully protect against carelessness, malice and accident.

We can only hope diligence on the part of property owners and the fire department can protect and preserve the history we cherish, market and often take for granted.

Kelli Du Fresne, features editor at the Nevada Appeal, grew up in Virginia City where her baby brother is a fireman. E-mail her at


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