One of the first urgent problems to face Shummians was fire. In the beginning, wildland fires, which was what a house fire in the woods soon became, were fought by non-local fire companies. They had the big guns, the good trucks and the airplane, but it took them a while to get there. Consequently, Shummians organized volunteer fire departments to get there faster, knowing better the exact location and which roads to take. The one I belonged to was the Beginnings Volunteer Fire Department, a work group of Beginnings, Inc., the umbrella organization that built schools and the community center. How I came to be an actual, trained firefighting member, I can barely explain, since I am so small and weak I rather imagine I was more of a liability than an asset on any given fire. I think what happened was that I just happened to be at an early fire when it started and, ready or not, ended up fighting it in my party dress. Soon thereafter, Gerald Myers, who later became the first Beginnings Fire Chief, handed out some semi-silly commendations to those who were known to have fought that fire. When Beginnings actually got a fire department going, Gerald leaned on me heavily to join it. I never figured out whether that was because he had me associated with fires because of that first fire or whether he knew I was writing about the community and wanted to be real sure Beginnings VFD made it into the book.
I was one of only two or three women members and the only one at the fires I actually ended up attending. If Gerald leaned on me because of that first fire, it was really a bad idea, because I only fought it for a few minutes, in stark terror, before I decided on my own and against the landowners wishes to take the truck into which we had placed all the children, drive down the mountain on the dirt road to the county road and look for a telephone to call 911. Lucky for us, the first house I came to had a phone.
As it turned out, the CA Department of Forestry already knew about the fire because they were doing either a training or a control burn on a nearby hillside. What they did not know was whose land it was on and how to get there by road. I was able to provide them with that information and the fire was put out by plane and trucks before it had burned more than a field, a shed and a car. Thanks to all the firefighters there, the fire was diverted around the landowners temporary dwelling.
The landowner had tried to stop me from calling 911 because he knew he had started the fire through a piece of utter stupidity and would surely be in some kind of big trouble if real firefighters were called in. A small party had been planned at his land that day, an extremely windy, dry day in summer, but he was going to get some work in first. When we arrived, he was hardening sharpened posts to use in building his house, taking them out of the fire and stacking them IN THE GRASS!!! I had been thinking about fire all the way out to his land, not only because it was a perfect day for a bad fire, but because I had dreamed about fighting a fire in my party dress, the preceding night. Go figure, and, yes, I am a teensy bit psychic. On the way out I was thinking, gee, I hope we aren’t planning on having a campfire. . . When we arrived and I saw what he was doing, I thought how can he be sure there is no spark in those posts fresh from the fire that will be revived by the wind and catch in the grass. As it turned out, he couldn’t.
When we saw it go into the grass, we rounded up all the kids and put them in the back of a truck, turned the truck so that it was pointing down the road, left the keys in it, posted an adult to watch the kids and ran to fight the fire. By then, it was well into the grass. I had on a long rayon skirt, but grabbed my hiking boots to fight the fire. However, I had no socks and was so terrified that I failed to lace and tie the boots. I just ripped the laces out of the hooks on the hiking boots, exactly as I had dreamed I would, grabbed a blanket and ran to attempt to beat at the flames.
I soon saw how ridiculous that was. No way were we going to stop the spread of this fire on our own. The flames were four to six feet high where I was, uphill from them (fires tend to move uphill) and the wind was whipping my highly flammable skirt all around me. That was when I made the executive decision to call for help and ignored the landowner when he tried to block the truck. I yelled at him, “Are you crazy? I’m going to call for help” and I left in someone else’s truck with the children. I expected to catch some flak for that, but I didn’t. It eventually became obvious, even to the landowner, that only the tanker plane spreading red stuff was going to stop that fire. And that’s how it turned out.
Such scenes were the inspiration for several mostly Shummian fire departments, including Beginnings, which we were all careful to call Beginnings VFD, not Briceland VFD (Beginnings is in Briceland), to make sure everyone knew that here are a bunch of hippies organizing a fire department where there was none, so you might want to revise any stereotypes you have of hippies as spaced out and irresponsible.
Gerald Myers, the first Beginnings VFD Fire Chief, proudly washes one of the VFD fire trucks. Gerald, a former Air Force officer, had no problem being in charge at a fire and no one I know had any problem following orders at a fire, though we were pretty democratic when not at a fire. Anyone who has ever fought one will appreciate how important it is to have a cool head in charge.
The first fire I fought as a VFD member was at the bottom of my own road, only a parcel or two away. When the call came over the CB, my in-laws were there visiting and a small panic ensued. If the fire moved faster than we did, it was possible it could block our only exit out. We managed to get a grip, got the in-laws and their car, us and our vehicles and our dog, but not the cats and ducks, down the road– us to the fire, the in-laws and the dog out to the county road.
I got out of our truck and ran toward the flames, which were in the trees, making fire the totality of my view, and then became a gibbering idiot. Someone handed me an uncharged hose and I stared at it stupidly. Then Gerald, in the jeep a few feet away began yelling at me, but I could not hear him over the noise of the fire and firefighters and was not experienced enough to guess what he might be yelling. I stared at him and tried to read his lips. Finally, it dawned on me that he was yelling, “Give me the hose.” That, I did and after that I remember nothing about the fire until it was all over and we returned to our house, our unburned house, covered in ash. I think I must have spent my time at the fire helping hold a hose, one of the few things I would have been able to do through my terror-induced brain fog.
The one fire I do think I was not a liability at was the one that took place further down our road from our driveway, out several miles into the boonies. When that call came over the CB, I was at home alone. Gerald instructed me to go down to the intersection of my driveway with the dirt road and meet the forestry guys as they came in and direct them to the fire. I was able to do that without getting us lost, but when we got there, the forestry guys directed me to go over to a bunch of locals already fighting the fire haphazardly, organize them into a line along the creekbed and set them to clearing brush in a line in front of the fire.
I protested, “But they won’t do what I say, I’m a woman and I’m only their road neighbor.” One of the forestry firefighters took me by the shoulders, physically turned me toward the group and gave me a shove, saying, “Bullshit. You’re in fire gear and you just got out of a fire truck. Go do it.” Much to my amazement, the local people, all men, did in fact do what I said, though in the interest of full disclosure, I have to say that I borrowed authority from the forestry guys and said, “The forestry guys want you to, etc.”
I spent the rest of that fire helping to direct traffic, since it was very smoky and my tolerance for inhaling smoke is very low, not a plus for any firefighter. As incompetent as I feel myself to have been, my teenage daughter followed us into the VFD and became a member herself. Later, in part because of this experience, she was able to work herself through college as a U.S. Forest Service “hot shot”, being flown into fires all over the West in helicopters, left off near the fire (by a landed helicopter, she was not a jumper) then hiking to the fire, one of three women on her crew, and fighting it. The three summers she did that I was a basket case the whole time, but she was never injured, as far as I know.
Few people had phones and not everyone had a CB, so word of training sessions and meetings had to be posted at the bottom of relevant roads.
Beginnings volunteer firefighters at a training session. I learned what to do with a Pulaski, but I could only do it for about five minutes without feeling faint. Just standing in the sun in my gear was an exercise in stamina for me.
Below, firefighters confer at a training session. This is one of several Beginnings fire vehicles we had at that time.
Rear view of truck above.
A training session to learn to drive the new old truck we had just acquired from the Fortuna Fire Department. The person gesturing vehemently in the center is me.
The lesson begins. I’m 403 in the back seat, in a borrowed helmet. Can’t explain where my own helmet is. The person on the other end of the back seat from me leans out to be sure we don’t back the truck into the ditch. This truck had 18 or so gears. The hope was that everyone would be able to drive it at least well enough to get it out of harm’s way if needed. I did manage to drive it from The Octagon down the driveway to the county road, involving only a few gears, on a slight slope. I then prayed that I would never be called upon to drive it in any situation, let alone on the kind of steep slope we often fought fires on. I can’t believe I ever knew anything about all those dials, but I think maybe I did know how to turn the valve to charge the hoses.
One of the fundraisers for the VFD is the annual barbecue and picnic at Beginnings. My then husband and I had a little folk-type music group that met once a week at our house, when our house got constructed enough to have visitors inside. We performed, infrequently, at various local benefits, one of which was, several times, the VFD barbecue. Since we were always, even with different guitar players at different times, all members of the VFD, we called ourselves Fireline, for lack of a better name. Here, we may be playing one of our two fire songs, “Baltimore Fire” or “Fire in the Barn.” Its me on vocals, Lenny Anderson on mandolin, Lloyd Hauskins on guitar and Bill Andrews on string bass.