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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.]

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