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.
Our Blog announces new site content, and gives the context of the topic and it's relationship to fire service history. Written by Bill Lellis & Paul Smith