Ever wonder what happens to fire service members who retire? Our unofficial observations, without any formal research, include the following: some in effect "disappear" from the fire service, preferring to spend their time with family and friends, perhaps traveling and engaging in other pursuits and hobbies. Some stay connected through maintaining fire service friendships, and attending fire department functions such as retirement gatherings or dinners. Some stay engaged through teaching or otherwise providing support. Some increase commitments to charitable causes or community efforts, such as disaster preparedness or church activities.
One ongoing gathering still happening decades later was the brainchild of Tiburon Fire Chief Frank Buscher, or so we believe. This group is called ROMEOs, standing for Retired Old Men Eating Out. A related and similar group was called FELLAS, or Fire Executives of Long Long Ago. The groups appear to have been started in the 1970's or 1980's, and included social gatherings at the Corinthian Yacht Club & Tiburon Tommies, popular spots in Tiburon and Belvedere. Dinners and lunches have been held. Today ROMEOs still holds a monthly "First Wednesday" no-host lunch with an open invitation, typically at the WildFox Restaurant in Ignacio, on the west side of Highway 101.
Read more about the ROMEO and FELLA group histories from Frank's son, retired San Rafael FD Battalion Chief Jeff Buscher. We've also posted a new photo of the Marin County FD lunch group, and hope to gain some historical information soon. Visit our page under the "Current Associations" menu, and see some great photos, including those at the most recent ROMEO lunch. Thanks to retired Mill Valley Chief Jeff Davidson for sharing the recent ROMEO photos, and to Jim Mann, retired from Marin County FD, for their group photo of a lunch last year..
It's been almost three months since our last Blog post and new content announcement. After several years of successfully posting from 1-3 Blog announcements each month, the many events from mid-September until now, including the north bay fires, have resulted in delays. We do hope to post at least six new stories before the end of this year, including a look at the 1964 Hanly fire in Sonoma and Napa counties. Marin County send mutual aid resources back then, as was done on a much larger scale for the Tubbs and other fires in the region this fall.
In our Hanly fire feature, you'll learn, for example, about firefighters from Novato FD helping save a hospital chock full of 250 patients in Sonoma County, with help from San Quentin Prison inmate firefighters, among others. Accompanied by a brief film shot by the California Highway Patrol in 1964, this story is coming soon.
For now, with thanks to Judy Coy and the San Anselmo Historical Museum, we are sharing the oldest known photo of a major forest fire in Marin County, along with the story. This fire roared on the slopes of Mt. Tamalpais over 126 years ago.
While it is not unusual to find multiple generations of family members in the American fire service, the extended family of Samuel L. Mazza has an amazing breath and depth of public service, including in fire, law, and the military. Chief Mazza died in the Line of Duty at a fire in Nicasio in 1948, and his story has been largely forgotten and is mostly unknown today. Thanks to the tools of online research, and some great photos preserved by retired Senior Captains Greg Jennings and Pete Martin of the Marin County FD, one surprising discovery led to another, and it was hard to know where to stop digging.
We have chosen to share some of the high points of his family and life, but by no means all of it. For example, we don't cover one of the members of a family tree branch, a man who served as a California State Senator and Judge, Thomas F. Keating. In fact, there are connections in the family tree to many other well-known Marin County names, such as Bloom, Keating, and Giacomini. Many stories to be told, so little time.
Join us this month in reading about Chief Mazza and some of his extended family. Now remembered, it's a story that should never be forgotten again. You can either click the button link below, or find the story under the Line of Duty Deaths menu, 1948.
Where? We are guessing that many of our readers have never heard of Tocaloma. It was a thriving small community in it's day, but is mostly known by a small sign on the road today in West Marin. Maybe you've noticed it while driving through on Sir Francis Drake, west of Samuel P. Taylor State Park, or maybe not. It was the location of, or near, the site of several large fires, in 1916 and 1945, including the one we are profiling this week that burned in December of 1916, on the day after Christmas.
The Train ran right past it. The what? Yes, passenger and freight trains traveled through West Marin back then, as in much of Marin in general. It existed long before Kent Lake was built, and long before the State Park existed. One could take the ferry from San Francisco to Sausalito, and then climb on a train to Mill Valley and go to the top of Mt. Tamalpais, and take the stage to Bolinas, or ride a gravity car down into Muir Woods. Or, take the train from Sausalito through Mill Valley, Corte Madera, Larkspur and the upper Ross Valley, going out through Fairfax, then through the Bothin Tunnel, and eventually to Point Reyes Station through Tocaloma, and on to Cazadero.
Let's travel back in time to Tocaloma in it's heyday, thanks to our good friend Dewey Livingston, Historian and Author. Dewey has contributed an excerpt about Tocaloma from a book he is currently writing on the history of the Point Reyes area. He expects it to be published next year, stay tuned. The story is listed under our Major Fire, Incidents Menu>Structure Fires>1916 Tocaloma Hotel, or you can click below to go to the page.
Thanks to retired Tiburon Fire Protection District Captain Larry Bogel for this weeks contribution to the Marin Fire History Project, telling the story of his career and how it came to be. In this case, how he got out of the house as a young man, and eventually found a career he loved. This is the second story about "sleeper" programs at our fire departments, in this case at Tiburon. Thanks also to Larry for sharing his robust collection of fire service photos and newspaper articles - we are scanning to use as resources for many future features.
We've started adding sub-pages to the main residential firefighter program page, under our "more" menu. We hope that any other fire department who have had a sleeper program at some point in their history will follow Larry's lead and share some stories and images. We are more than open to any written contributions to all areas of this project, contact Tom Forster @ firstname.lastname@example.org with any submittal questions. We are especially interested in biographies, and are slowly building a long list of names to profile as best we can. Remember our original purpose, "Never Forget? We forgot, but are now remembering, preserving, and sharing history."
Let's take a closer look at an example of fireworks causing serious fires in Marin County. The earliest example we know of so far happened in Sausalito 124 years ago on, of course, the 4th of July.
In this case funds for an Independence Day fireworks display were raised by the owner of a hotel named the El Monte. Contributors included members of the community who wanted to see a good fireworks display on the 4th of July. It was reported that several hundred dollars were raised, or more than $7,000 today.
To put that into perspective, remember in our last blog and story about the fireworks in Corte Madera, that they only spent a few hundred dollars in the early 1950's, and even by the early 1970's only $1,500 for huge displays. So, we know the El Monte put on quite a show that night.
Unfortunately once the show was underway, a nearby business downhill, a saloon and lodging structure called "The Hunters Resort", caught on fire, and the flames eventually spread to many other structures. With no fire department other than the start of organizing volunteers, and no fire equipment, along with a limited water supply, the fire burned unchecked for some time. Eventually a fire tug boat from the San Francisco FD arrived to help, and at some point the fire "got tired" and went out.
The proprietor of the El Monte Hotel, Colonel J.E. Slinkey, denied his fireworks caused the fire, and of course with no fire department there were no fire investigators. At that time the San Rafael Volunteer Fire Department was the only FD in existence in Marin. The good news is that this fire led both to the incorporation of Sausalito starting that same year, and to the creation of the Sausalito Fire Department. Read about this fire by clicking the button below, and also visit the Sausalito FD page under the Departments>Former>Sausalito FD menus.
The obvious link between fire departments and fireworks today are in two areas. First, the enforcement of fireworks prohibitions, and secondly, dealing with some of the consequences that can include injuries and fires. In Marin County fire service history, there is also an unusual story of a partnership between the community, business, and a local fire department for over 15 years. A large fireworks display on Independence Day, the 4th of July, was performed for both entertainment, and to discourage individual neighborhood displays.
This year the evening news on July 4th featured huge fireworks going off around bay area cities like Oakland and San Jose. While this was spectacular in many cases, the problem was most were illegally being set off, with enforcement stretched thin due to the huge geographic area involved. To the north of Marin, four cities in Sonoma County including Petaluma, Rohnert Park, Cloverdale, and Sebastopol featured "Safe and Sane" fireworks sales and neighborhood displays. The rest of Sonoma County prohibited all sale and use of fireworks.
Read this week's feature story on how some members of the Corte Madera Volunteer Fire Department became licensed pyrotechnicians, and orchestrated huge displays that attracted tens of thousands of people for 14 years, starting in 1953. Learn what motivated the displays, and why they ended in the 1970's.
This week features the story of a forgotten fire in San Rafael in March of 1950, a little over two months before the double fatality of firemen fighting the Mar Vista Motors blaze.
The fire at the Marin County Storage & Trucking Company was unusual in several ways, and the research led to several “It’s a small world….” stories. This is a common occurrence with our research for the Marin County Fire History project. In the process of learning about a person or a fire, we discover a much deeper world that has been mostly forgotten.
This fire, for example, revealed links to volunteer firefighters in San Rafael, including a Doctor who served in the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach. A photograph of the fire was published nationally, due to 100 bystanders pushing a railroad boxcar out of danger.
The buildings were owned by the family of the San Rafael Fire Inspector, who investigated the cause in the aftermath of the inferno.
Also this week, please keep retired Larkspur Fire Chief and Marin Fire History project writer Bill Lellis in your thoughts and prayers. He’s been in the hospital for over a week now, with serious illness, which was finally tracked down to a necrotic gallbladder, which has now been removed. We hope he can come home soon.
On Memorial Day this coming Monday, please join us in remembering World War I veteran and Distinguished Service Cross Award recipient Charles R. Reilley, in battle roughly 99 years ago. 33 years later, he became Chief of the Marin County Fire Department, following the very difficult first decade of their existence, which our new Part III covers. Part I told the story of Charlie's family history and early life, and Part II was focused on his service in the U.S. Army in Europe in World War I, where he was recognized for "...extraordinary heroism..."
A hero in war, and many years later a quiet hero who overcame serious challenges, including the Marin County Board of Supervisors considering outsourcing County fire protection in unincorporated areas to the California Department of Forestry. This was considered in part to save money, and in greater part because of major problems in MCFD. Read about these events now in Part III of Charlie's story. The final Part IV later this year will cover his service as Fire Chief from 1951-1962, and a huge retirement dinner held in San Rafael for Charlie, with roughly 300 attending. May he rest in peace.
On a beautiful day that would feature the San Rafael St. Raphael's Mission parade on May 21, 1950, a spark from a worker using a paint sander ignited a pool of solvent, creating what San Rafael Fire Commissioner Walter Castro later described as a "roaring hell." Two firefighters died in the line of duty fighting the fire inside the Mar Vista Motors shop at 812 Fourth St. The roof collapsed in a very hot fire, and both Aubrey Miller and William Bottini were trapped and fatally injured.
Later this week we'll be publishing the story of another large commercial fire in San Rafael two months earlier in 1950, where a roof also collapsed and two firefighters were injured. Thankfully their injuries were not serious. A photo from that fire was published across the nation through the Associated Press release. This fire has been forgotten, like so many in the history of Marin County, but thanks to the Marin Fire History project sponsored by the Marin County Fire Chiefs Association, it will now be remembered. Each month we are discovering and indexing more major fires in Marin history.
Please join us this week in remembering William Bottini and Aubrey Miller, and may they rest in peace. Click below to go to the page with the stories, photos, and video of the fatal fire that includes footage of the roof collapsing.
"Life is divided into three terms - that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future."
- William Wordsworth
Our 53rd annual installation dinner was held on March 18th in Greenbrae at Jason's Restaurant, featuring a program about the shootings in the City of San Bernardino on December 2, 2015. Thanks go to former San Bernardino City Fire Chief Tom Hanneman and Nurse Educator/EMS Coordinator Carly Crews for volunteering to come north to present this program.
The Marin County Fire Chiefs Association was formed in 1964. Installation dinners became an annual event each year, for the purpose of installing new officers and recognizing outgoing ones. Jason's in Greenbrae is adjacent to Corte Madera Creek and the Highway 101 Greenbrae interchange. It has been the location for the dinner the past few years. Previous locations have included among others Deer Park Villa in Fairfax, Sam's in Tiburon, and the Alta Mira in Sausalito.
Click below to go to the page on the dinner, including many photos.
Firefighters love competition, and one of the enduring sporting events that evolved over the history of the fire service was hose cart racing. These events started in the 1800's in America, and continue to this day in firefighter musters. These races were often part of larger community events that might have also included competition with fire ladders, hand pumpers, and foot races between FD's.
The earliest examples of hose cart races in Marin and the North Bay Area can be found in the late 1800's. The oldest fire departments were the first competitors, including San Rafael (1874 formation), Sausalito (started circa 1893), Larkspur (started circa 1897), and San Anselmo (started circa 1900). To the north, the Petaluma FD (formed1857) and Healdsburg FD (formed circa 1858) often competed with the Marin and other fire departments in the region.
Think about that as far as communicating, planning, and logistics. Overcoming obstacles like few paved roads, no freeways, no cars or trucks, using railroad cars to transport the hose carts, and telephone service existing in only the early phases. To see there was competition spanning wide geographical areas is really amazing.
Thanks to retired Larkspur Chief William "Bill" Lellis for this great story on our local races, published under our Competition & Sports section.
The annual Marin County Fire Chiefs Association Installation Dinner is coming up on March 18 at Jason's in Greenbrae. What are the roots of this tradition?
In our case we can track the annual dinners back to the Marin County Association of Fire Departments, originally formed in 1929 and lasting until 1963. This group held annual dinners to install new officers, and to thank and recognize those who had served the Association in the previous year. The Marin County Fire Chiefs Association was formed when this group ended in 1963, and has continued the tradition. In parallel over the past 100+ years, many fire departments would also hold installation dinners for their volunteer and/or employee associations.
While the numbers have never been tracked, we believe these types of gatherings have been less in overall number over the past couple of decades, and falling. The reasons are many, including fewer fire associations in existence, and the greatly reduced number of volunteer firefighters in many communities. More career positions have been filled over the years, and it's now very common for those members to live out of the County, especially given the high cost of housing in Marin. This can reduce participation in social events outside of work.
Regardless, having a transitional ceremony, while gathering for a meal as a group, remains a key to having an effective volunteer group. Yes, the Marin County Fire Chiefs Association is voluntary and a 501(c)3, not a public agency. Participation is voluntary, including this 'no-host' dinner event. Forming good relationships is part of good leadership, and getting 'good things done' with these types of groups, and that's hard to do in formal meetings, or over Facebook, Twitter, or e-mail communications. Having an occasional meal and social event can go a long way in this regard. The ceremony of the 'changing of the guard' is also a welcome reminder of duties and obligations.
Today's events are much simpler affairs compared to the 'old days.' Read about the installation dinner for the MCAFDs held in 1955 as an example in this weeks new content, published as an addition to the MCAFDs page.
Imagine it's in the early years of the Great Depression in America, in 1931. Your volunteer fire department needs a new fire house, but the town can't begin to afford it. A town vote is held on funding the building, and they can't afford it. Do you just give up? Not for the successful businessmen who were the Corte Madera Volunteer Fire Department, Ltd. Following the tradition of many good firefighters, they persisted, improvised, adapted and overcame when faced with these obstacles.
"Let's finance and build it ourselves!" became the rallying cry. It included three apparatus bays, an assembly hall, and offices they would rent to the Town for the Police Chief and Town Clerk. They'd also lease the land to the Town for an initial 15 year period.
Several years later, they had a new fire house still in use today as the Corte Madera Town Hall, over 86 years later. As the old saying goes, it was "...built like a brick s___house!..." and is still strong today.
Read all about it and watch a wonderful short 5-minute silent film of the fire house under construction in 1931. We did set up a 'bed' of old music. See the last run from the original fire house with a 1916 Chevrolet Pope Hartford chemical engine, and the first run from the new one with a 1928 American La France pumper. The is the oldest existing film clip of the Marin County fire service that we've found so far.
Many fire departments throughout Marin and across the country have had residential firefighter programs at some point in their history, also known as "sleepers." The basic deal was free rent with shared kitchen and bath, a bed, locker, and perhaps a dresser, in exchange for training and responding as a volunteer or paid call firefighter. Sometimes you also were required to work some shifts. These programs most likely peaked in the 1950's-70's in Marin, given the post-World War II boom and growth, and then declined with the eventual hiring of many more career firefighters.
The 'free rent' part was very helpful to many young firefighters, especially if they were going to college or trying to get hired in the fire service. A great deal of hands-on experience could be gained in a shorter amount of time, since you were typically there most days and nights. The situation also presented the opportunity to learn how to get along with others, pitch in with chores, and stay clean and organized in a somewhat cramped environment. Those that could not learn those lessons typically did not last very long in these programs.
Today, most of these programs no longer exist in Marin for many reasons, including a reduced need in the urban areas given many more career employees, and a lack of space. For some FD's, bad experiences with some personalities and unresolved conflicts led to the decision to stop offering the arrangement. This week we take an insider's look at one local program, from the perspective of one time sleeper and now retired Larkspur Chief Bill Lellis. Thanks to Bill for this contribution to our history project.
"The Greatest Forest Fire in Marin County History"
Over 117 years ago in July, 1899, a forest fire burned in the Baltimore/Madrone Canyon in Larkspur, and across the southern flanks of Mt Tamalpais. Then, ten years later, the area burned again, in 1909. According to the San Francisco Call newspaper, the William Kent Estate was "menaced" by the 1909 fire, but saved by over 100 firefighters.
The headline of this paragraph is from their feature on the 1899 fire, and the entire text is published on the fire page under Major Fires>Wildland>1889 and also 1909. Was it the 'greatest forest fire' ever? Not really, but it felt like this at the time, according to the reporter.
Fighting a forest fire back then was quite different than today. Wet burlap sacks anyone? Read all about both fires starting with the one in 1899, by clicking the button below.
Yesterday, January 2, marks the 39th anniversary of the fire and accident that killed responding Larkspur Fireman Jim Niven. Please join us in remembering Jim, and may he rest in peace. We invite you to read about this accident through the memories of several people who were directly involved, including some new information from the scene of the fire.
Tonight we have added the story of how the fire began, and how it was reported, along with the initial actions taken at the scene. This story is shared thanks to Shirley Walker, the Registered Nurse in charge that day at the facility. It only recently came to our attention.
Read also how the old wisdom of "it's a smalll world" comes true again, in this case with Shirley's family connections in emergency services, in New Jersey, and then in Marin, and San Francisco. Shirley's story is at the end of the page, scroll down if you've read the earlier accounts.
The Reverend Dan White, a longtime and second generation Larkspur volunteer, leading the dedication of the Jim Niven Park in Greenbrae in the early 1990's, adjacent to the newly rebuilt Larkspur Station 16. Jim's widow Lorraine Niven is pictured second from left. To her left is then-Larkspur Fire Chief Miles Julihn, now head of the Marin County Emergency Medical Services Department. Then Deputy Chief Doug Archer is in the middle in, and Dan White to the right. Dan is the brother of long-time San Rafael FD Captain Skip White, now retired, and the Uncle of current Novato FPD Captain Steve White.
This week we are sharing the start of a biography on long-time Kentfield Fire Protection District Chief Kenneth "Kenny" Kamp. All of our biographies are meant to be improved over time, with the help of the larger fire service community, and this one is no exception. We hope that the feature will prompt the sharing of additional photos, memories, and stories about Kenny.
Kenny's career spanned multiple eras in the fire service, from the 1950's into the 1990's. From using open cab fire engines with wood ladders, to sophisticated modern engines with fully enclosed cabs and features like hydraulic ladder racks. From painting fire engines red, shifting to yellow paint, and then back to red. From having no college fire education programs, to helping develop a full Associates Degree in Fire Science just down the street from the Kentfield fire station, at College of Marin. "He was an all-around good guy," said retired Tiburon Fire Chief Frank Buscher, also now deceased.
We give thanks for contributions to Paul Smith, KFD Chief retired, Jim Galli, KFD BC retired, Ken Massucco, Marin County FD Chief, retired; Bob Marcucci, retired San Rafael Chief, and Bob Souza, Tamalpais Valley FPD Chief, retired. Kenny's story can be found under the More>Biographies menu, or by clicking below.
Hard to imagine there was once a huge codfish processing plant in Belvedere. Not only was the facility part of a thriving business for decades, but it burned twice, with the final fire in 1937 bringing the end of the plant and an era. Homes were developed on the site along the bay a few years later, leaving no signs of the once thriving business.
Ever thought about codfish? Did you know that it was one of the most important fish to the development of North America? Were the fish caught locally? No, they were always caught up near the Aleutian Islands. The plant was opened and operated by the Union Fish Company in 1872. The Union Fish Company is still in business today - 152 years old and counting. Read all about the fire in this weeks posting under Major Fires, Structure Fires, 1917 and 1937.
If you were to visit the small town of Tomales today, it would be hard to imagine a large fire. The very rural area is right next to the Pacific Ocean, and is often cool and wet, and covered in fog. The Marin County Fire Department operates a full-time staffed fire station here, supplemented by the Tomales Volunteer Fire Company. Unfortunately, as happened in so many communities across America long ago, the reality of unprotected wood construction, the lack of a fire water supply, and having no organized fire protection, often led to disastrous fires. At some point the community usually makes a decision to improve their fire protection.
In the example of Tomales, an entire business block burned on November 12, 1898. It was later rebuilt, and thrived. Then, about 21 years later, almost the entire town burned up. At some point, the fire protection was improved, both stories for another day. We do have placeholder pages for the history of the Tomales Fire Department, today's Tomales Volunteer Fire Company (some photos posted), and the 1920 fire, but have not completed the stories yet. You can read about the 1898 fire by clicking below. We thought starting with the oldest fire was best, and now we'll work forward.
Our Blog announces new site content, and gives the context of the topic and it's relationship to fire service history. Written by Tom Forster.