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Apr 27

Fire department catches fire

San Luis Obispo city hall circa 1938 on Higuera street where Charles Shoes is today. ©The Tribune

Top five signs your fire department needs an overhaul.
1. Fire department catches fire.
2. No hydrant wrench on truck to turn on water.
3. Water pressure only reaches the story below the fire.
4. Second fire engine won't to start, pushed out of station.
5. Hoses so weak they burst, not once, not twice, three times.

At least one local fire historian I have spoken to said the second engine did not start because the battery needed to be replaced. Is it likely the hose pressure was too high for the hoses if the water could not reach the fire? My guess is the hoses were old or underrated for the task. If it was indeed the fault of an "too excited" firefighter then the training program was faulty.
Sure I want my tax money to be spent frugally but I'm willing spend enough to do the job safely and effectively. No matter where you stand on the latest budget proposals I think we can find agreement on this point.
Though times were tough during the Great Depression it was clear from this incident that there were holes in the safety net.
Today's fire department invests in training, is better equipped and they schedule inspections of town buildings in an effort to prevent short circuit fires of this type. Today public buildings are sprinklered and smoke detectors are common. The good old days, may have had less regulation but were not always so good.

Though this incident was an embarrassment to the department they hold the fire to one building.
In 1905 a fire like this spread and destroyed a whole city block. At the dawn of the 20th century they considered using dynamite to blow up buildings to create fire breaks.

The San Luis Obispo city fire department still has the bell outside Station 1, a reminder to stay vigilant.

Here is the article from August 29, 1938:

Belfry of 61 Year Old Fire Station Destroyed in Midnight Blaze
Defect in Wiring Reported as Cause

City employes of San Luis Obispo Monday had cleaned up most of the debris resulting Saturday near midnight when a fire apparently started by a short circuit in power line gutted the belfry of the 61-year-old city hall and fire station at 867 Higuera street.
Citizens lined the sidewalks Sunday and again Monday to examine the charred corner posts of the ancient tower built with the hall in 1877, and the question on the lips of most of them was: Will city councilmen build a new city hall or will they attempt to patch up the old one?

Daily Telegram front page from August 29, 1938 documenting a fire at the San Luis Obispo city hall/fire station.

Nearly a thousand persons gathered Saturday shortly after the fire started at 11:35 p.m. and watched members of the fire department and volunteers fight the blaze which threatened to burn the entire building and spread to business structures on both sides. At the height of the fire it appeared that the flames would spread to the Sears-Roebuck company adjoining on one side, and Kippers and Valley Electric company on the other, but the fire fighters brought it under control before any major damage was done.

Discovers Blaze

Edward Madsen of Townsend's Coffee Shop and Cocktail Lounge discovered the fire as he walked out of the lounge and looked up.
"Fire," Madsen yelled across the almost deserted street to the fire station.
A night patrolman on the opposite side ran to the center of the street and looked at the flame which was licking through the tower opening, then dashed inside to arouse the firemen, three of whom are posted on night duty, two upstairs in a bedroom and one on duty downstairs where equipment is housed.
Firemen started one of the trucks and drove it about 200 feet distant to the intersection of Higuera and Chorro streets, unrolling a hose and coupling it to the corner fire hydrant. But there was no wrench on the truck and one man raced back to the station to get this implement before the perspiring crew could get the water turned on. But the engine on this machine failed to pump sufficient water pressure and the stream reached only a short way past the second story.

Gives Assistance

Assisted by S.N. McLaughlin of Hollister, who had been in the Marshall Hotel across the street, and other volunteers, the firemen placed a ladder against Kipper's store and mounted the building but the pressure was still insufficient and the stream did little to curb the fire which by this time was blazing high.
Meantime, the crew had attempted to take out the larger engine but were unable to start the motor, so firemen and volunteers pushed the machine to the corner and attached a second hose. Onlookers estimated that it was nearly 15 minutes before the first stream was started and nearly a half-hour before the second one was sprayed on the blaze.
The firemen denied that the truck pushed out of the station by spectators had a dead battery or that the equipment was defective. They said the driver was too excited to start the motor and this was responsible for the "pushing exit."
The same excited fireman also was blamed for the breaking hose, his associates saying he failed to observe signals to turn off the water at hydrants.
The fire ate off the base of the flagpole which surmounted the tower and the pole crashed down to a horizontal position above the street while the crowd scattered. But the base of the pole remained fast to the building.
Five men held the end of the large hose through which 300 pounds pressure is exerted, and played the heavy stream on the fire from the front.
Part of the fire-fighting crew mounted a ladder which was placed against the Sears-Roebuck building and played the water on the flames from that angle, while from the opposite side, the smaller stream was used. Occasionally the men manning the fire hose shot the water into the street and drenched onlookers who ventured too close.

Hoses Burst

Three times during the night the hose burst, apparently from too much pressure, and sightseers were sprayed.
By midnight the fire was practically extinguished and the water from one hose only was used to spurt onto smoldering lumber which burst into small flames now and then.
A rope was thrown over the flagpole and this was pulled down.

Councilman Helps

Joe Berkemeyer, city councilman, appeared on the scene shortly after the fire started, wearing striped pajama tops in lieu of a shirt and did yeoman work along with the firemen in putting out the blaze.
Mayor L.F. Sinsheimer arrived when the fire was partly under control. He said the building was constructed in 1877 but offered no opinion when a representative of the Daily Telegram asked him if he thought a new building should be constructed or the old one repaired.
Acting Fire Chief William Payton was on a week-end vacation in Watsonville, Saturday, firemen said. He had returned Sunday.
Mayor Sinsheimer said the building was fully covered by insurance.
Flames from the blazing tower burned through the heavy beam supporting the fire bell, and it dropped four feet to the tower floor, cracking when it hit, so employees of the fire department said Monday.
Monday the city clerk, and city police departments were operating as usual in their offices and the city council will meet in its room again Monday night when the city tax rate will be set.

Related posts:

  1. Last call for Ferdinand the fire horn
  2. 1905 Fire destroys a city block
  3. Farm Bureau fire
  4. Pulling the plug, fire plug
  5. 1975 Obispo Theater Fire