When I saw Mount Diablo burning, my first thought was: "I need to call the Townsend Brothers, fast."

No, that's not an environmental law firm. It's not a team of trained smoke jumpers, nor is it a mob family trying to take advantage of the fire to redefine organized crime in Morgan Territory -- which I'm pretty sure doesn't exist anyway.

No, the Townsend brothers were my neighbors and three of my closest associates in the adventures of my youth. The last time Mount Diablo burned like it did this past week was in August 1977, just a few weeks before I turned 10 and Elvis left the building permanently.

Now, raging forest fires aren't something for us to celebrate. Just ask any squirrel. Fire is scary stuff, especially for those who have to fight it or who have homes in the way. But that 1977 fire -- which in retrospect seems like it went on for a month -- is somehow one of my favorite memories of being a kid running around the hills of Tice Valley in Walnut Creek.

The Townsends and I lived near the bottom of a hill that now sags with large houses. But back then it was our weedy, oak-tree-spotted backyard. On summer days, the hill seemed like a giant mountain that needed conquering. We climbed it to fly kites, swing off a rope hooked to an old oak tree, and generally pretend we were world-class explorers.

So when the big fire broke out, we were ready. Someone had to be: One never knew when the fire would jump its lines, inexplicably race 10 miles west and destroy all of downtown Walnut Creek, thereby threatening our homes and our very existence. Our way of life required serious vigilance. So we set up day camp atop the hill -- and when I say "camp," I mean we found a big log to sit on.

The fire was, at least how I remember it, on the mountain's northwest side, giving us a great view. The oldest Townsend was Mike, who was probably 12 at the time. As such, he was our alpha dog and chief distributor of wisdom. I think Mike told us that white smoke was good and black smoke was bad. I have no idea why, but I remember him calling out when the white smoke dominated, announcing that it was a "good sign."

Of course, we didn't know what was good or bad. We just knew that we were close enough to see planes dropping rust-colored fire retardant on the fire, just like on television. This might not seem very exciting now, but we didn't have an Internet, smartphones and Kardashians in 1977. This was incredibly exciting stuff. We may have even brought a shovel or two up the hill to dig a fireline, you know, just in case the winds increased to about 1,200 miles an hour and shifted to the west.

I feel a bit guilty now for associating so many positive memories with one of the area's biggest fires in my lifetime. Maybe it's the same attitude that prompted me to become a reporter. Maybe it's just a boy thing, which might explain why my daughters looked at me like I proposed they take in wild snails as pets this past Sunday when I suggested we go somewhere to get a better view of the blaze. They obviously understand that fires are not spectator sports.

Or maybe I should've tried finding my childhood buddies. They might have already staked out a hill.

Contact Tony Hicks at thicks@bayareanewsgroup.com, Facebook.com/BayAreaNewsGroup.TonyHicks or Twitter.com/insertfoot.