It’s a story as old as America itself: small towns popping up across the rural landscape, growing for a while, then burning to the ground. They rebuild, burn again, and eventually locals form a volunteer fire department for their own protection.
Such is the case in far East Contra Costa County, which has been home to nine such districts since 1900. As the area’s population grew, the districts underwent a series of mergers that resulted in today’s East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD), which covers 250 square miles, including Brentwood, Oakley, Byron, Discovery Bay, Knightsen, Bethel Island, Morgan Territory and the rural areas between.
While the former volunteer districts no longer exist, the job they performed and the important role they played in the social fabric of their communities live on in the pages of history.
Disastrous fires have swept through Brentwood several times. In 1903 the first Brentwood Hotel burned, and much of downtown Brentwood was destroyed by fires in 1915 and 1919. By 1928, the town decided enough was enough – and the Brentwood Volunteer Fire Department was born.
Fire protection got its start in Brentwood around 1915. Frank Dowdell fixed up an old Star-Durant chassis fitted with two 35-gallon tanks in back and a 10-gallon tank for a front seat, added a 110-foot hose and parked it in the O.K. Garage on Oak Street (the site of the current The Game Sports Pub ’N Pizza). When the truck’s frame finally gave out, Everett LeMoin, owner of the garage, mounted the tanks on a 1917 Chevrolet 490 chassis that cost $100.
The fire department formally organized in 1928, named Clyde Watson as chief and ordered a new Seagraves fire engine, which arrived the following year. Nicknamed “Casper” after Charlie Cogswell, who usually drove it (and who served the department for 60 years before retiring in 1987), the engine is still used in parades.
Firefighters were summoned by a siren anchored on the exterior of the Bank of Brentwood (today’s Press Building). But a timer at the bank posed a problem: the power to the siren was shut off every day at noon for 15 minutes. A January, 1931 newspaper story assured readers that the problem was resolved: “Should a fire start at noon, the alarm can be given without delay.”
In 1931, a $50,000 fire destroyed a packing shed on Walnut Boulevard, but the fire department managed to save the railroad depot next door. A grateful Southern Pacific expressed its gratitude with a donation of $100, which the department used to buy protective clothing for its firefighters.
One of the hallmarks of volunteer fire departments, the Firemen’s Ball, began in Brentwood in 1932. Money raised at the yearly event was used to help men injured fighting fires, but the primary benefit was social. Similar in some ways to fraternal organizations that had served as a social safety net for many residents before they moved to rural Contra Costa, the department and its annual ball became a mainstay in the lives of everyone.
“The one common denominator was the volunteer fire department,” said local historian Kathy Leighton. “It was a cross section of the community; basically its heart. If anyone got in any trouble, whether it was a fire or anything else, the fire department were the first ones to help. The fire department became the melting pot of the community.”
A new firehouse was built in 1937 on First Street, next to Veterans Memorial Hall. Replaced in 1957 by the current station on the same site, the old station’s office building remains between the hall and the new station, occupied by Operation Creekside’s military support organization.
The first incursion by the county into the business of the department came in 1938, when county officials floated the idea of a consolidated county fire district. According to a newspaper report, “Brentwood has a well-equipped volunteer fire department with a splendid record (and) a clubroom second to none in comfort and convenience, and the less that is heard about the scheme to throw the county into one big fire district, the happier all concerned will be about the whole thing.”
It was believed that the countywide district would result in a tax increase from 9 cents per year to as much as 30 cents, and the department voted unanimously to oppose county involvement.
In 1950, the district employed 20 volunteers. They were paid $1.50 per call, but only if there was an actual fire. In addition to answering calls, the firefighters were required to spend a minimum of 76 hours per year training.
A major non-fire development that affected the district in 1978 was the passage of Proposition 13. The law capped property tax increases, and set in stone the division of taxpayer dollars. Like the other small fire districts in far East County, Brentwood’s was then staffed by inexpensive volunteers, and under Prop. 13 the fire services were given only 6 to 7 cents per tax dollar. Full-time professional districts elsewhere in the county get 15 to 16 cents.
By 1984 under Chief Ray Morgan, the district covered 50 square miles and boasted 34 active firefighters. That year, in the first of several mergers aimed at reducing the total overhead by combining the small, underfunded fire districts, Brentwood absorbed the Eastern Fire District, the remnant of a county-run district covering Morgan Territory southwest of the city.
The new district was named East Diablo Fire Protection District. In 1991, East Diablo grew again, absorbing the Byron Fire Department and its stations in Byron and Discovery Bay.
In 1995, the district hired its first full-time, union firefighters. The full-time crew of two staffed the station around the clock, with volunteers providing additional manpower when calls came in.
The railroad tracks bisecting the city were a concern for fire officials, who were worried about the ability to answer calls on the city’s growing west side in the event a train was using the track. A second station for storing engines and equipment was opened west of the tracks on Walnut Boulevard. In 2002, the station was replaced by one on Balfour Road paid for by development fees.
Also in 2002, East Diablo, the Oakley/Knightsen Fire Protection District and the Bethel Island Fire District merged to form the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District (ECCFPD), which was run by the County Board of Supervisors. At the time, the district served 82,000 residents and covered 250 square miles.
In 2010, control of the ECCFPD was transferred to a local board made up of residents and city officials from within the district. The ECCFPD now serves about 105,000 residents.
Byron has suffered a number of major fires, sometimes twice on the same property. The Byron Hotel burned down in 1884, and in 1901 the Byron Hot Springs Hotel and several other buildings were lost. The second Hot Springs Hotel was destroyed by flames in 1912, and the second Byron Hotel burned in 1917.
But the seminal blaze, which fully brought home the need for a fire department, occurred in 1923, all because of a man who came into Tobe LeGrand’s barbershop in need of a quick shave.
When LeGrand went to light his gas-powered water-heater, it caught fire, and when he tried to throw the device outside, it exploded. LeGrand was badly burned, and the flames spread, eventually destroying seven buildings – virtually every wooden structure on Main Street. Without a fire service and nearby source of water, locals were helpless. By the time a Southern Pacific train arrived from Stockton with a tank car of water three hours later, there were little left but smoldering ashes to extinguish.
The Byron Fire Department was formed in 1929. The Byron Times boasted that the department was equipped with a “splendid $2,500 chemical engine” with three 40-gallon chemical tanks and 400 feet of hose. (A common method of providing water pressure for early fire engines was by mixing sulfuric acid and soda inside the chemical tanks.)
The Byron fire station was built in 1959, a 40-by-78-foot cinder block building housing an office, kitchen and recreation room. Built at a cost of $32,000, the station was built on land donated by Louis Souza.
In 1980, the district added a second station in Discovery Bay, paid for through community fundraisers after the need for closer emergency services was made evident when resident Ed Ballich died of a heart attack. The effort first established a first aid and rescue equipment station, which was replaced when the station was built, staffed and made part of the Byron Fire Department.
In 1985, fire service in far East County had been staffed with men. The Byron department broke the gender barrier when it hired Judy Johnson and Virginia Goldsby, the first female firefighters in the region.
Until 1989, the station also offered non-emergency services such as blood-pressure checks and CPR classes. The district was also the first in the county to use automatic defibrillators.
In 1991, the Byron Fire Department was merged with the East Diablo District, which covered Brentwood and Morgan Territory. Residents who preferred their own, smaller district mounted an effort to prevent the merger, but a petition drive to put the question on the ballot failed to gather enough signatures.
In 2002, East Diablo merged with the Bethel Island Fire District and the Oakley/Knightsen fire district to become the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District. That same year, a new station opened on Bixler Road, funded by developer fees.
The ECCFPD was run by the county Board of Supervisors until 2010, when control was handed off to a locally appointed board. In an effort to stretch its meager resources as far as possible, the new board closed the Byron and Discovery Bay Boulevard stations.
Like its far East County neighbors, the town of Oakley suffered a number of conflagrations before finally putting together a fire service. In Oakley’s case, it was a 1924 disaster that sounded the wakeup call.
For the first 25 years of the town’s existence, putting out fires meant bucket brigades, wet burlap, and every able-bodied man who could be mustered. Those tools were not up to the task in 1924, however, and several buildings on Main Street were consumed. One was the Dal Porto Hotel, owned by Anthony Dal Porto.
Following the blaze, Dal Porto was named chief of the town’s new fire department, and a used fire engine was purchased from Oakland. A second engine was acquired in 1942, and a third was purchased in 1948.
Also in 1948, it was decided that a station in Knightsen was needed to house equipment and improve responses in the district’s eastern sector. The firehouse was built on land formerly owned by the town’s founder, George Knight, in downtown Knightsen.
The first firehouse in Oakley was located next to the Oakley Theater building on Main Street. Barely spacious enough to fit the engine and supplies, the station was replaced in 1957 with a station built on Acme Street on land donated by Dal Porto. The building included a dormitory, bath and shower, plus stalls for two engines, including a new 1,000-gallon engine purchased the same year.
Carl Gott replaced Dal Porto as chief in 1953, and set about making the department more professional. The nine volunteers in service at the time were provided an increase in firefighting education plus training on the care and use of equipment.
Oakley also enjoyed an annual Firemen’s Ball, a major social event. The importance of the fire department to the fabric of the community was also reflected in a tradition established by firefighters in Oakley and Knightsen: the Christmastime Santa Run, when fire engines drove every street in the community passing out oranges and cany canes to delighted kids. Growth eventually made the Oakley run unfeasible, but the tradition continues in Knightsen. Knightsen firefighters’ community involvement during the holidays also extends to delivering toys and food to needy families.
A new Knightsen fire station was built in 1960 and outfitted with another new 1,000-gallon engine. The new station included a siren to summon firefighters.
In 1974, Gott retired after 30 years of service, and Manuel Tovar became chief. At the time, Oakley could count on 25 volunteers; Knightsen 18. Paid about $10 per hour for responding to calls, the volunteers became known as paid-on-call firefighters, or POCs.
The Oakley and Knightsen fire stations were absorbed by Contra Costa County’s fire district in 1994, with the intention of reducing duplicate overhead costs and streamlining fire services. Prior to its absorption, the district was able to muster as many as six POCs on an engine (full-time districts in the county staffed three firefighters per engine), and send several pieces of equipment to major incidents.
Resistance from volunteers and residents was unable to prevent the move, which included the introduction to the district of full-time, union firefighters. Tension between the career firefighters and the POCs contributed to a dropoff in district efficiency, and in 1998 the merger was abandoned; the Oakley/Knightsen Fire District once again free of ConFire control.
By 2000, the POC rolls had reached 32 in Oakley and 22 in Knightsen. Because it could turn out so many firefighters, the district was able to provide strong support for nearby districts. In 2000, the district assisted East Diablo in Brentwood 1,500 times.
In 2002, Oakley/Knightsen merged with East Diablo and Bethel Island to form the ECCFPD, run by the county Board of Supervisors. An appointed board of district residents and city officials was appointed to oversee the district in 2010. A new fire station, funded by development fees, was opened in 2011, and the former quarters converted to an animal rescue facility.
Once referred to by locals as “Battle Island” because of the fiercely independent and sometimes contentious population, the Bethel Island Fire Department was formed in the wake of some not-so-neighborly behavior on the part of one of its resident farmers. Surrounded by levees holding back the waters of the San Joaquin River, the island’s soil is mostly peat, or former river bottom. Once ignited, peat fires can smolder underground for years, and whenever Bethel Island’s peat fires got out of control, the island was flooded to extinguish them.
During the 1920s, one such fire forced residents to breach the levee to put it out. After the levee was repaired, a farmer on one side of the island began pumping the water out, a time-consuming and expensive task. Meanwhile on the other side of the island, a competing farmer began pumping more water onto the island, hoping to run up the costs for his competitor. The need to localize fire protection was clear.
Following World War II, Berkeley attorney Leroy Thomas purchased property on Bethel Island, where he loved to spend weekends fishing. Aware of the island’s inadequate fire service, Thomas also donated land for the first fire station, as well as Scout Hall, which was built next door.
The district, originally called the Bethel Island Fire Club, was formed in 1947 under Chief Charles Maxwell. At first, the fire phone was located at the end of the bar near the back door of the Bel Isle Club, next door to the station.
The effort to build the station was literally full of ups and downs. A military surplus Quonset hut was purchased, to be assembled by the district volunteers. According to the minutes from a 1948 board meeting, the volunteers each pledged to “work on the firehouse at the first decent chance.”
After several months of work, the volunteers finally completed the job. Unfortunately, four days later a huge windstorm knocked it down. This time, a contractor was called and the station was rebuilt properly.
Under Chief Joe Whitener and Assistant Chief David Wahl, the Bethel Island Fire District continued to improve its services through the 1980s. Because of its remote location and many residents in their retirement years, the district became the first in the region to employ full-time firefighters, who staffed the station during critical hours. It also implemented a paramedic program, becoming the first in the area to offer advanced lifesaving medical services.
In 2002, the Bethel Island Fire District was merged with the Oakley/Knightsen and East Diablo districts to form the East Contra Costa Fire Protection District, which now staffs the station with two full-time firefighters.
Still to come in The Press’ five-part series on fire protection in far East Contra Costa:
• Ready for anything: what fire and emergency medical providers do.
• Payroll and benefits: what district employees make at work and in retirement.
• Paramedics: providing advanced lifesaving services in the district.
• Service delivery: district operations now, with the new tax, and without it.
Look for the articles to appear every Friday leading up to Election Day on June 5.