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   Fire Department

Back when the city was called Rust, the fire department consisted strictly of volunteers under the direction of Chief August Gatto and had a hand drawn cart. It was after the incorporation that two Ford chemical engines were purchased and one placed at either end of the city and Chief Gatto was replaced by volunteer Chief Earl Johnson.

After the bond issue in 1925 and new equipment was purchased, Chief Johnson was replaced by the first paid chief, Williams Hinds, who filled two positions, that of fire chief and police judge. In 1926, A. H. Byrd was hired as engineer. In 1928 Chief Hinds was replaced by A. H. Byrd and O. A. Burnett hired as engineer. In 1930 Chief Byrd resigned and O. A. Burnett was appointed chief with Joe DeMartini as engineer. DeMartini passed away in 1937 and was replaced by Victor Belfils from the ranks of volunteers.

In 1938 a Chevrolet water tank truck was purchased and gradually more men were hired to the fire fighting force. Two Buffalo type fire trucks were purchased in 1946 and put into service after the dedication of fire station #2. [Editor's Note: Station #2 is the building at the southwest corner of Ashbury & Eureka Avenues.] Later one rig was moved to station #3 after the dedication of that house on Arlington Avenue in 1949. Chief O. A. Burnett retired from the fire service in 1955 and was replaced by Ed Herman.

El Cerrito's second school was the Fairmont School which was erected in 1903 and stood on the site of the present day Fairmont School. It was surrounded by open fields and a few scattered houses. Children riding their horses to school would stake them out in the open fields until school was over. As the population increased, rooms were added until in 1924 on a Saturday, a boy set fire to the school just to see it burn. As the city did not have sufficient fire protection, it burned all the way to the ground and has since been rebuilt on the same spot. Years later, one day a fellow dropped into the present fire station #1 and introduced himself as the boy who had burned the school down. He apologized and said he had started other fires and had been caught and had served his time in prison and was very sorry for the trouble he had caused. He told Chief O. A. Burnett that he had set 75 fires before he was caught, but claimed he never set fire to any building that was occupied.

The closest fire hydrant to the Fairmont School was at the corner of San Pablo and Fairmount Avenue a very long way. The lack of fire equipment and water supply was the reason that the school burned all the way to the ground. Albany Fire Department at that time laid a fire hose from Fairmount Avenue, but did not have sufficient hose to reach the fire.

The year before the Fairmont School fire the city of Berkeley, on September 17, 1923, had the most terrible and disastrous fire in its history. The fire started was a grass fire in Wildcat Canyon and fanned by a heavy wind, spread into the city, leaving a portion of the city in ruins. The total property loss was in the neighborhood of $10,000,000 and 600 building were destroyed, which left blocks and blocks of ruined buildings which had to be demolished further to clean up the properties involved. A number of people were left homeless and steps were taken to start rebuilding to mend the scar left by the fire. Scores of volunteers and people living in the nearby communities, such as El Cerrito, helped in the rebuilding of the fire area.

When the old Fairmont School burned down in 1924, the citizens got together and a new fire engine was purchased. The dedication was made in 1926. There were only two paid men, William Hinds, the chief, and Arthur Byrd, the driver, and the rest of the men were volunteers. The 1926 American LaFrance has been sold and after all those years of service in El Cerrito, it still had only 2,500 miles on it when sold.

Prior to the LaFrance the city had two Model T Ford fire trucks on which was mounted two fifty gallon chemical tanks. The firemen would fill the tanks with water and add soda and a cartridge of acid. By turning the tank over it would cause a charge and the mixture would have a very good pressure. These chemical trucks have put out hundreds of fire and could be driven almost anywhere and were used for years. One of these trucks was stored at San Pablo and Fairmont Avenue next to Phil Lee's property. The other was kept at the north end of town at the Johnson garage. [Editor's Note: Johnson's garage was at the southeast corner of Potrero and San Pablo Avenues.] Usually the first one who got there was the one who drove as all the firemen were volunteers.

The volunteer fire department held their Sunday baseball games in a large vacant area just north of fire station #1. They always had a big turnout as people would gather to watch that game. This was discontinued soon after Griffin Lumber Company was started in 1931.

The volunteer fire department was very beneficial to the city. They would hold dances or whist parties to raise money for their group. With this money they would buy uniforms and equipment. In later years, they held Christmas parties for the children, and on Easter an Easter egg hunt. All year long they would fix up old toys and distribute them to the needy children the day before Christmas. [Editor's note: whist was a very popular card game.]

Every Sunday they would have their drill to familiarize themselves with the equipment, and study how to fight fires properly. In those days one could say that the volunteers were the backbone of the city as they were called out to do various things for the city without pay.

On January 16, 1926, a clipping from the newspaper read, "Municipal Building Dedicated" "The fire demon no longer has any terror for El Cerrito citizens since the dedication of their new municipal building and fire house and new $13,000 fire truck. When Miss El Cerrito, impersonated by Fire Chief Hinds' daughter Elizabeth, crashed a ribboned bottle of grape juice against the bumper of the fire truck, the new engine was dedicated to the service of protecting the community from fire. The christening of the fire engine was coincident with the dedication of the newly completed municipal building housing city offices and fire fighting equipment. City officials, headed by Chief Hinds, welcomed visitors during the day who came to inspect the building and fire truck."

Commencing at 7:00 p.m. with musical numbers by the orchestra of the Oakland Fire Department, a program of speeches by Mayor Mc Dermott and other local officials, celebrated the opening of the new building. Music and dancing in the council chambers followed until 9:45 when all adjourned to the Miami Inn to toast the nineteen members of the city's volunteer fire fighting force. E. Wuelzer presided as toastmaster and Chief Hinds welcomed the city's visitors including fire chiefs from various cities in the east bay.

The dedication of the building and engine marked expenditures of the major part of the $65,000 raised by the municipal bond issue of May 1925. Including the land on which it stood the building represented an investment of nearly $20,000. An efficient fire alarm system was to be installed throughout the city during the next two months and would cost an additional $11,000. The purchase of fire truck and laying of water mains with hydrant installation, brought the total up to a figure close to the amount of the bond issue.

Others at the dedication included F. W. Wright, City Marshall, Alice Morris, City Clerk, Miss Margaret Wright and a number of volunteers.

Living quarters for A. H. Byrd, driver of the new truck and department engineer and his family, had been provided in the upper story of the new building. Beds for three more single men of the department were also provided.

When the $65,000 bond issue was issued it was for thirty years from 1925 to 1955, the year of maturity, but it was paid up two years ahead of schedule at the rate of 6% interest.

Mr. Hinds' daughter Elizabeth married Herman Schwarz and they lived on the same property on Behrens Street that Mr. Hinds had purchased in 1906.

When the city had decided to build its first fire station and city hall they thought it should be centrally located which was approximately at the corner of Manila and San Pablo Avenue. This is where they built the city's first firehouse in 1925 which was the main and only station at the time. This building also served as city hall and council chambers for a number of years until it was demolished to make room for new modern buildings.

Behind the old city hall later on they had constructed living quarters for the driver and his family. This building was used during World War II for the Rationing Board and also housing volunteer firemen but the building was moved in 1949 to make way for remodeling of the police station.

The first jail was a very small building constructed at Fairmount Avenue near San Pablo, next to where the old Model T Ford chemical fire truck was stored. This jail was abandoned after the dedication of the new city building in 1926. [Editor's note: this building still exists, at the back corner of the parking lot on the northeast corner of Fairmount and San Pablo Avenue.]

The fire alarm was a large air horn mounted on top of the cupola at the firehouse and could be heard all over town. This horn blew at intervals counting out the proper box for the volunteers to report to. Such as, if it was for box 12, then it would blow one with a short pause, then two more fast blows and then hesitate for a longer period before repeating the box location. Each box number was blown three times. This horn also blew at 8:00 a.m., at noon, and at 5:00 p.m. Most of the people in town would set their watch or clock by it.

Each of the volunteers at home knew by the horn what the location of the fire was. If the fire was several blocks away from the box location and it was during the night, the driver would shine the spotlight up in the air so volunteers could see the light and know where to report.
Perhaps the coldest ride ever taken on "Old Betsy" or the LaFrance fire truck was by "Mud Hammond". He had been asleep in the cupola when an alarm was turned in one very cold night. Half sleep, he stumbled down a half dozen steps, slid down the pole, and ran and jumped on the back of the truck, which had already started pulling out and on its way.

The fire did not amount to much but people had gathered at the fire location and they were all laughing as "Mud" was standing on the back of the truck in his shorts shivering. He had forgotten to jump into his "quick hitches", a fireman's apparel used when going to a fire. Chief Burnett, sizing up the predicament, hurried over to "Mud" and gave him his long white coat to get into.

In those days they only had a paid chief and paid driver and the rest all were volunteers. Some of the younger volunteers slept there at night. If there was a phone call and someone wanted a policeman, it was up to the fireman on duty to take the message. He would then walk out to the hall and turn on a switch or walk to the police office and flip a switch that turned on a red light that was high up on the building. This red light could be seen from most parts of the city and the police officer would report to the office to find out what he was wanted for as they did not have police radios at that time in their cars.

El Cerrito and Kensington firemen were battling flames in a grove of eucalyptus trees and shrubs in the cemetery on September 30, 1947, when they were endangered by dynamite used for blasting that was housed in a shack at the cemetery, as it blew up. The men who were working near and around the shack fighting the fire were warned about the explosives by one of the volunteers who was familiar with the lay-out. As the fellows started to retreat, the dynamite suddenly blew up, knocking all of the men to the ground, and also a number of tombstones nearby. No one was hurt except for a few bruises by flying debris. All of the trees in this grove were destroyed before the fire was brought under control. If the fire fighting crew had not been warned that explosives were in the shack, they probably would have had several lives lost as some of the men had been within a few feet of the building.

On Fink Lane, now Portola Drive, where the Eddie Davis family lived, the fire department volunteers were called to remove a horse from a well during the early thirties. It seems Eddie had borrowed a horse from Mr. MacLamara to plow his yard to plant potatoes and other vegetables. After he finished plowing he unharnessed the horse and allowed it to graze. It then wondered around his property and fell into his open well. It did not fall all the way to the bottom but landed on a concrete flange that was about 18 inches wide and ran all the way around the wall and about 20 feet below the surface. The horse weighed about 1,400 pounds and was wedged in very tightly and had his head and neck twisted to one side.

The volunteers rigged up a hoist to try and raise the animal which was on the verge of dropping farther down and into the water. After a couple of hours of trying to remove the animal Chief Burnett came up with the idea of trying to float the animal up. He had his men lay a fire line from the well to a hydrant and started to fill the well with water. Slowly the well started to fill and the horse's hoofs raised a few inches off the flange. They continued for several hours until the horse and water reached the top and they were able to get the horse out. Except for a stiff neck and a few bruises, the horse came out in fine shape. Immediately Eddie put a cap over the well strong and heavy enough to protect any person or animal from falling through.

These were some of the things the volunteer firemen had to do besides answering fire calls.

Sunday, April 16, 1944, was the day set aside to collect scrap tin in El Cerrito. F.E. Symons, Chairman of the War Services of the El Cerrito Civilian Defense, asked every citizen to help in the drive for tin cans as they were badly needed by the government during the war years. Every householder was urged to mash the cans flat after labels had been removed and placed at intersections near their home in boxes the night before the drive.

City employees, Stege Sanitary employees, and volunteers went out with donated trucks and picked up the cans and hauled them to gravel cars parked on sidings along the Santa Fe. Some were hauled all the way to San Francisco.

Prior to the tin drive, a scrap drive was held in 1942 under Chairman, Dan Hurley, and all the scrap was hauled and dumped into what was then the parking lot behind the police station. This very large drive consisted of everything from old lawn mowers, and old cars, to old water boilers and one large cement mixer being towed to the scrap pile. This drive was put on the city and district volunteers as the government was asking for metal. The iron was later sold and after expenses for cleaning and hauling the rest of the money was used to buy equipment for the Civilian Defense set up. Being the fire department was near to the scrap material storage spot it was their job to keep an eye on everything.

Copyright Mervin Belfils, October 1975
Copyright El Cerrito Historical Society, June 2006


PO Box 304, El Cerrito, CA 94530