District Builds Fire Station at Airport Location in 1969

In the 1930s, Santa Barbara County operated its first fire station in the area near Solomon Peak and the Newlove Hill area. It was moved to Waller Park around 1950, and in 1961 the engine and crew were moved to 1025 Sabre St., across Skyway Drive from the airport.

In 1969, the Santa Maria Public Airport District built the fire station in its current location, 3339 Terminal Drive.

A new fire station was built in 1938 at the east end of City Hall, adjacent to the police department, at a cost of $17,000. The siren from the old fire station was moved to the water tower at the water plant on South Broadway.

During the 1940s the fire department expanded some, adding a streamlined trailer, pulled behind the Fire Chief’s pickup truck.  This bullet shaped trailer housed an engine driving a high pressure pump and a small water tank. High pressure was 800 lbs., compared to a normal fire hose pressure of 150 lbs. This enabled its special nozzle to deliver tiny droplets or “fog,” to quickly convert the heat of the fire into steam.

Pearl Harbor was attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. During “blackouts,” the siren on top of the Mill Street School alerted residents to turn off their lights.

A map of the City’s streets in 1942 showed the City’s limits to be Donovan Road to the north (East Donovan to the river was known as Whitney Road), Blosser Road to the west, Bradley Road (which was once known as Nance) to the east, and Stowell Road south of town. At that time the City had 70 street names. To date, there are about 800.

Controls for the fire siren moved to the Police Department in 1943, and the “black out siren” was added to the fire alarm circuit. These two sirens became the method to alert firemen of structure fires in the city.  A fire destroyed the Santa Maria Valley Railroad in 1944.

At 12:30 p.m. on Jan. 30, 1945, a P38 airplane from the Santa Maria Army Base, currently the Santa Maria Airport, crashed into the Rusconi Cafe at 112 S. Broadway. The pilot, Elmer R. Steffey, Tillie Rusconi (wife of the proprietor) and the cook, Jim Doff, were all killed instantly. Fire trucks from Orcutt, Santa Barbara County, and the Santa Maria Airport, all responded to the fire.

The plane tore down telephone and power cables as well as a corner of the roof of the adjoining drug store, allowing the fire to enter the attic and rear part of the store.  Small fires which had started in various rooms in the Bradley Hotel were quickly extinguished. Army officials estimated that the plane tanks contained about 180 gallons of aviation gasoline at the time of the crash.

Both the City and Air Base Fire Departments, along with volunteers, worked until after midnight, clearing away debris and snuffing out the last smoldering embers. A bulldozer and troops from the Air Base cleared debris from the alley so that a large crane from S.P. Milling Company could be used to remove the wreckage of the plane from the building.  At the time of the P-38 crash, the fire department consisted of 15 call men, all of whom were subject to call at any time.

In 1951 the fire station had one full-time fireman on duty for each 24-hour shift and 15 “call men,” who were called for a fire by radio at home, or at their regular place of employment. It also had sirens at the water plant as well as in the northwest area of town. A new red fire engine, built by the Fire Engine Division of the Food Machinery Corporation, was purchased from Roemer and Rubel, local agents for the company.

The new fire engine enabled an initial attack as soon as it arrived at a fire, using tank water. If the captain estimated that the fire would require more than the tank of water, he could lay a hose line from the nearest hydrant to the fire. If needed, a second fire engine could lay more hose.

On June 15, 1951, an early morning fire at Ricks Restaurant at Broadway and Donovan spread to two dining rooms and a cocktail lounge. High pressure fog nozzles kept the fire from spreading to the kitchen and coffee shop where patrons continued to eat their breakfast during the fire. All sections of the building were rebuilt, redecorated and back in service in 19 days.

The staff in 1951 included Chief Frank Crakes; First Assistant Chief Clarence Crakes; Second Assistant Chief Harry H. Bell; Captains Alex Lobo, Jack Serbian and Elmore Litten; Hose men Frank Hocknell, Karl Bell, Robert Beaver, Kenneth Dunham, Preston Shell, John Weldon, Bertram Bell, Raymond Ford, Joel Dilbeck and Harold Rios.  Raymond L. Smith joined the fire department on May 1, 1952 as a fireman. He also became the first fire inspector.

The worst fire in the school’s history took place on Nov. 23, 1952 when four classrooms, a janitor’s room, lavatory and the main hallway of the center wing of the El Camino School were lost in a fire. The final insurance settlement was $201,700.

A Gamewell air horn alarm was installed April 19, 1953 and operated by the police department. This was used in place of the two sirens which were then reserved for Civil Defense use.

A fire at the Santa Fe Cannery on April 12, 1954, involved principally the warehouse section containing 79,000 cases of canned goods. The fire required the use of all three city engines. The Santa Barbara County Fire Department furnished stand-by service until city engines were again available. The cause of the fire was never determined.

On Aug. 21, 1954, another fire truck joined the fire department’s fleet of four vehicles. This truck, used as a general purpose fire truck, was able to handle all types of emergencies, thus cutting down costs of having a heavier truck roll out to fight smaller grass fires and other minor fires. In addition to being equipped with a 5000 watt generator, the truck contained a 140-gallon water tank with a high pressure pump, capable of delivering water at 800 pounds of pressure. A hose reel was mounted on the front of the truck.

One of 12 applicants, C. Wright Crakes, joined the fire department as a fireman on Sept. 1, 1955. Crakes worked alone on a 24-hour shift at Station No. 1, alternating with Ray Smith and Art “Frenchy” St. Pierre.  During 1955 a retirement plan was adopted that required all city employees retire upon reaching the age of 65.

Shirley Contreras lives in Orcutt and writes for the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society. She can be contacted at 934-3514 or at shirleycontreras2@yahoo.com. Her book, “The Good Years,” a selection of stories she’s written for the Santa Maria Times since 1991, is on sale at the Santa Maria Valley Historical Society, 616 S. Broadway.

August 4, 2013 •  Shirley Contreras/The Heart of the Valley/Santa Maria Times

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