Danville Fire

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The First 25 Years

FireStation1926The San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District began in 1912 at a meeting of the Danville Improvement Club. At this meeting, it was decided that a volunteer fire brigade needed to be organized. The idea was unanimously approved, and the name Danville Farm Defense Fire District was established. The officers elected to lead and govern were: J.A. Freitas, Fire Chief; G.W. Groom, 1st Asst. Chief; Harvey Eddy, 2nd Asst. Chief; C. W. Close, Treasurer; E.C. Weister, Secretary. To finance the department,a Fireman's Ball was held in March. $169.20 was realized, but after expenses, $100 was deposited in the San Ramon Valley Bank.

By 1921, a state law permitted the organization of special fire districts and empowered them with the authority to levy a tax for their support. At that time the County Board of Supervisors appointed J. Jones, W.A. Ward and Frank Rutherford, commissioners of the district, effective September 6, 1921 and thus became the Danville Fire Protection District, a public agency and a political subdivision of the State of California. The new commissioners discussed the boundaries of the district and though San Ramon was considered in consultation with Fred Wiedemann, it was finally decided to use the boundaries of the Alamo, Danville, Green Valley and Sycamore grammar school districts - an area of approximately fifty square miles.

By 1922, the department began making apparatus purchases. The first fire truck was purchased in April for $4,140. It was a Reo-American La France 45 chemical, and was to be delivered in forty-five days. The department waited in eager anticipation because the only equipment in use was a trailer with ten 10-gallon milk cans full of water. Whoever got there first with a trailer hitch pulled it to the fire. Gunny sacks were soaked in the water and then used to beat out the fire.

FireStationMid30sIn May (1922), the commissioners called a "preparedness meeting." They appointed Mr. Oscar Ollsson Fire Chief, R.J. Monroe Assistant Chief, and H.M. Fitchenmueller Captain. Chief Ollsson was directed to organize the department by having seventeen firemen ready when the new fire engine arrived. E.C. Wiester, Secretary to the Board, was to look into an option on a lot in Danville that belonged to M.J. Laurence.

July (1922) marked the dream come true. At a meeting, Commissioners Jones and Freitas appointed officers, the seventeen firefighters met, and along with the brand new fire truck, were ready,willing and able to go to work. Commissioner Jones spoke and then presented each firefighter with a badge of authority. Following this meeting the men proceeded to "Pete's Grill" for a "Dutch Treat" which was enjoyed by all.

In January of 1923, the department bought a lot for a firehouse for $600. The Fire Commissioners election was in October of 1923. Ward, Fitchenmueller and Ed Weister presided. The first purchase of 4 helmets, coats and gloves was in April of 1924. In June, George Groom, Fitchenmueller and Ed Weister presided over the meeting. The electric fire siren that was purchased in December or 1924 was installed atop the tower to summon volunteers. Buttons were installed in three different locations including one at the telephone office. The original lot that had been purchased for $600 was sold in July, 1925 for $600 and a new lot was purchased for $600. This new lot was to become the site of the first firehouse, which is still intact, at 150 N. Hartz Avenue, Danville.

A San Francisco architect selected the building style and proposed its cost to be approximately $5,000. In August, Randolph Hook submitted a proposal to build the desired firehouse for $4,997.50. His proposal was accepted. Chief Ollsson stepped down in September and Assistant Chief Fitchenmueller was advanced to Chief. The firehouse was completed and accepted on December 2, 1925.

Duane Elliot, who ultimately spent over 50 years fighting fires in the Alamo-Danville area, took care of the fire truck and the fire station as a boy. The fire truck was kept in a garage behind his home on Diablo Road, so he would just "jump the fence" to do his job. He would sweep out the fire station, too. In March of 1928, Elliott was paid $10 for his work in January and February.

Also, in 1928, Mr. Macomber donated a Dodge truck for conversion to fire truck #2, Commissioner Podva was elected to the Board, and a bill for PG&E of $17.50 for two month's service was reluctantly approved. Commissioner Wiester later met with PG&E and learned that nothing could be done to obtain lower rates that were practical.

By 1932, Duane Elliott and Fletcher Collins were listed as volunteer firemen. In May, the Commissioners received an insurance underwriter's report that required exorbitant expense to obtain a Class B rating and the Commissioners rejected improvements at that time. They concluded it might be more economical not to have a fire department, the tax levy at this time was 10 cents per $100 assessable valuation. At this meeting Commissioner Wiester reported that there was a lot of chewing the fat about hard times and the Depression, but as the Commissioners could do nothing about it, the meeting was adjourned.

In August, Raymond Camacho and Amiel Dondero were added to the member roster. Fitchenmueller stepped down as Commissioner in 1935, and John and Manual Camacho and Merle Johnson were added to the member roster. Steve Johnson took Howard Groom's position as Commissioner and Chief Fitchenmueller was re-appointed Chief by Ordinance #1 and would serve as Secretary to the Board.

A Chevy truck #4 was purchased to replace Dodge #2, and in 1936 Ordinance #2 was adopted to require fire permits for open burning. Also, in October of 1936, volunteers began to receive 50 cents to answer a call and 50 cents per hour thereafter.

The Second 25 Years

FireStation1949The Danville Fire Protection District refused the County's proposed consolidation of all special fire districts in May of 1937. In 1941, a two-way radio was installed between the firehouse and the County Sheriff, linking Danville with the rest of Contra Costa County. E.P. Watson, Kussen Burger and Gene Bell were assigned air raid warden duty at the fire house. By January of 1942, four men were appointed as firemen in Diablo. February brought a request for government defense funds for the fire department. In May, the Commission advised the Defense Council to have a man sleep in the fire house. And, in October, the Danville Fire Protection District entered the county mutual aid plan. In 1943, Manuel Brown was hired as a day man for $100 per month and the volunteers pay was raised to $1.00 per hour during response time. A fire in September burned the Danville Warehouse and Lumber Company hay barns 2, 3 and 4.

Unhappy firehouse neighbors complained in November that, during card games, obscene language was used and had become a nuisance. Commissioner Podva motioned to have gambling prohibited in the firehouse. The vote was recorded as follows: ayes 2, nays 1. The gambling was still an issue in 1944, so in March, Commissioner Podva moved that gambling or card playing was permissible after 12 a.m. any night. This was approved unanimously, but by August, Commissioner Podva reported the firehouse neighbors were complaining again about the card playing. Commissioner Johnson said that there was no truth to the complaint, so the card playing continued. Also, in August, a special meeting was called to discuss the telephone operator's sounding of the siren. It was resolved that no fireman had the authority to censure or criticize any telephone operator in her judgment about blowing the siren.

DanvilleFireFightersIn September (1944), the card playing issue was raised again. The firehouse neighbors wanted to erect a fence between their property and that of the firehouse. When the card playing complaint was addressed and the citizens stated that "they didn't care if the boys played all night." The Commissioners concurred that that if the neighbors would provide the materials, the volunteers would erect the fence. In 1945 Commissioner Steve Johnson was re-elected. There were 33 total votes cast: 32 votes for Steve Johnson, 1 vote for the firehouse neighbor.

In November of 1947, Chief Fitchenmueller stepped down and the commission appointed Duane Elliott as the new fire chief. An FMC power wagon (Truck #6) was purchased in December and the volunteers pay was raised to $1.50 per hour during response time. Fire Truck #7 was purchased in January of 1948. In 1949, Chief Elliott reported 25 fires in the past year, amounting to a $625 loss.

In May (1947) a resuscitator was purchased and in August two-way radios were purchased. July of 1950 brought a tax rate raise to $.40, and in December there were 30 firefighters on the volunteer roster. It was decided in January of 1951, "that Air Raid Wardens may use the meeting room, but fire calls will take priority." In February, four new helmets were purchased. In December, a GMC pumper (Engine #8) was purchased at the cost of $13,800. After having served the District for 22 years, Chief Fitchenmueller passed away in March of 1952.

The preliminary plans for a new firehouse and remodeling of the present one were submitted in January of 1953. The 1954/55 budget was raised by the Commission, due to the building up of the District and the influx of population. This increase would take care of the new firehouse. October brought a special meeting to approve the remodeling and additions to the firehouse and call for bids. By November, the meeting to open bids was held, with a low bid of $21,729.50. An additional $15,000 was later allocated to remodel the original structure.

Also in April, Manuel "Pinky" Camacho was authorized seven vacation days to practice in the chorus line for the Legion follies. In May of 1955 the Commissioners considered making inquiries on the feasibility of a tax or taxes to support an ambulance. Commissioner Wiester announced his retirement in February. At the end of his term, April 1956, he had completed 44 years of service to the District. In March, Commissioner Rose began to look into a firehouse location in Alamo. After an election, Candidate Lloyd Mathews was appointed to the Board with Podva and Rose, filling the seat of Ed Wiester. A lot in Alamo was purchased in April of 1957 for Station 2. By September an architect was hired to draw up plans for the building and in November the plans and specs were reviewed and accepted. In January of 1958, the low bid of $37,666 by Franz Muller was approved and construction of the new Alamo firehouse began.

Mike Blodgett was hired as the first full time fireman assigned to Station 2 in January 1959. In February, Dale Sandy was hired to Station 2. He resigned in July and was replaced by Dave Podva. The District fire insurance class rating of 7 was approved, and in January of 1960 a lot was considered for Station 3. With 33 names the volunteer roster was continuing to grow. Frank Roy retired in March of 1960 after 36 years of service to the District. Chief Elliott was authorized to hire eleven additional men in January 1961. In April, Commissioner Rose's term expired. Duane Elliott stepped down as Fire Chief in June and W. Van Limburgh was hired as Chief. Commissioners Steve Johnson passed away in August, after 29 years of service to the District as fireman and commissioner.

The Third 25 Years

DanvilleParade1962A fire insurance class rating of 5 was obtained in July of 1964. Chief Van Limburgh suffered a heart attack and passed away later that year. He had nearly 30 years in the fire service, including time with Riverbank in the San Joaquin Valley, many years at federal military installations, and of course, Danville Fire Protection District. Commissioner Podva retired in April of 1963 after 35 years of service to the District, and Captain Forrest Wilson of the Central (Walnut Creek) Fire Protection District was hired as Chief.

Per the 1961 Fire Protection Law, board member titles could be changed from commissioner to director, and in 1963, the commissioners unanimously changed their title to director. At the same meeting, and of greater significance, they voted to be elected by the voters in the District they serve instead of being appointed by the supervisors of the county. Not only were these actions a major change in policy and procedure, but more importantly these actions reaffirmed and strengthened their autonomy and independence from the County. As a result of the April election, the voters also approved increasing the Board of Directors from three to five members and comprised Directors Matthews, Ramos, Basso, Layton and Barone. In December of 1963, all of the volunteers resigned.

In April of 1964, Director Ramos stepped down and was replaced by Henry Bettencourt. Mike Blodgett was appointed Assistant Chief in July, and became Acting Chief in July 1965 when Chief Wilson suffered an apparent heart attack. In July, Chief Wilson took a disability retirement and Assistant Chief Blodgett was appointed Chief. Directors Matthews, Layton and Basso continued for several years thereafter. Many other directors served in subsequent years. The Counsel to the Board, Thomas Henze, served the District for 11 years. Director Matthews retired in 1976 after 22 years of service to the District and passed away in 1980.

In 1974 there was a tragic accident in front of San Ramon High School. A student, Helen Howell was hit by a car and died waiting for a private company ambulance from Walnut Creek. The ambulance did not arrive. The outraged community held a fundraising drive and raised enough funds to purchase a top of the line Ambulance. The Ambulance was put in service at the District with a mandate to operate a more efficient service. This one vehicle has blossomed into a major emergency medical presence in Contra Costa County.