Friday, May 19, 2006

The Great Point Arena Fire Of 1954

The pert and perky mayor of Point Arena, a city of 500 and a strong contender for the title of smallest incorporated city in California, explained the recently and finally approved General Plan for her city at our Rotary Club weekly luncheon at St. Orres. Towards the end of her talk, she spoke briefly of the value and importance of volunteers in getting city projects accomplished.

As she spoke, my mind drifted back to Point Arena. As I recall, it was the summer of 1954. I was walking down the Main Street hill towards downtown, and just at the bottom of the hill next to Disotelle’s Bar and Restaurant I heard the fire alarm go off on the city fire station across the street. The volunteer firemen rushed to the fire station and fired up the engine of the city’s old tanker fire truck. I heard a couple of them shouting back and forth that the fire was up the hill and almost all the way to the west end of town on Lake Street, at the Hedden home just before the high school.

A couple of tourists came over, and asked me if I knew where the fire was. I indicated it was north, up the hill, then past the elementary school, west about a half mile, to a driveway to the right just before the high school. As I was finishing my verbal description of the route to the fire, which I had embellished with pointing and hand gestures, the fire truck pulled out the firehouse and turned – south. The people I had answered looked at me, and over all the noise -- the motor racing, the siren screaming, the horns blasting -- indicated that the fire truck was “going the wrong way!”

Since I could no longer be heard, I held up my hands in a “relax” gesture and shook my head “no.” In the meantime, the fire truck had labored to the south end of town, past Soldani’s to the old abandoned creamery building, and was slowly turning around. “Watch this!” I shouted.

Slowly, but noisily, it’s speed increasing imperceptibly, the fire truck, with a full load of water in its tank, had reversed its course and was now heading north on Main Street coming back into downtown, its engine at its peak revolutions per minute, probably in second gear. As it roared through town, it would have been an awesome sight if its speed matched its noise. It passed where I was standing again, started up the hill at its top speed in second gear, and I started running up the hill on the sidewalk. I caught up with the fire truck a little more than half way up the hill, not long after its driver had downshifted into low, and pulled ahead of it and beat it to the top of the hill by five or ten yards.

A crowd had assembled downtown, watching and cheering the fire truck on. A few yelled, “Can we help? Do you need us to push?” And, of course, “Get a horse!” As Main Street leveled out by the elementary school, the fire truck picked up speed, and caught up and passed me before I got to the left turn onto Lake Street. It continued to accelerate up Lake Street, and if the sound had any meaning, it would have been going about eighty miles an hour. Sonny Buti was sure they were doing better than twenty-five miles an hour before they had to slow down to turn right into the Hedden driveway, but other people thought that Sonny had just been caught up in all the excitement. “That thing couldn’t hit twenty if we drove it off the bluff!”

“Good idea,” someone yelled.

As I ran down the driveway to the Hedden house, the excitement level was already sky high. The fire truck had stopped in front of the house, and a hose connected to the truck’s water tank had been run in through the front door, down the hall, and out to the back porch where the fire was burning, well fed by cans of old paint. It didn’t take long before the combination of old pump, old fittings and connections, old hose, and overeager firefighters ran the truck out of water with the fire still producing prodigious amounts of smoke. So then garden hoses were hooked up to the Hedden’s water tank, which also was quickly drained. Still smoke poured out of the porch.

At about this time energetic volunteers, including several high school girls, had gone into the house, up the stairs, and started to pass furniture, clothing, and other household treasures out of the bedroom windows and toss or lower it to helpers below. The more the mature and experienced among the firefighters tried to discourage this, the more frantically the volunteers lowered and threw things from the upper floor windows.

No more water could be pumped from the well, because the power had been turned off to protect the firefighters and others from electrocution. At this point we spontaneously formed a bucket brigade, using whatever buckets and other containers were at hand to pass water from a big cattle watering trough to pour on the fire. This seemed to work, although the fire may have already been dying from the cumulative effects of all the water already splashed on the back porch, plus the remainder of the old paint being removed before it could ignite.

At first, the shouts that the fire was out seemed to drive the crews upstairs and in front into an even higher level of frantic activity. However, after a brief period of hyper-activity, suddenly everyone stopped. Then all the people who had been evacuating things just quietly wandered off, leaving the tired firefighters to clean up and help the Heddens put everything back inside.

As the years passed, the fire grew, the danger heightened, the heroics multiplied, and then it was all forgotten. Almost all forgotten, anyway.

Previous Point Arena stories:

Pete Bjornavik, a Point Arena character - Fun to be around
Gopher Capital of the World? - There's a bit of larceny in all of us
1960 NCAA Basketball Championships - Thanks, "Chub" Ohleyer - A very generous man
Sweethearts Dance 1960 - Bad weather makes a special memory
Number, Please? - Personal connections before the dial telephone
Puddles the Pup - A big part of the best childhood in the whole world
You Gotta Ring Them Bells - Some wedding nights you don't forget, but you try!
After The Summer of 1954 - 7th and 8th grade, 60 students, one great teacher
The House We Built - Brother Ron and I dug the basement in 1954, with help from "Prince"
The Old High School - When we came to Pt. Arena in 1949, we lived in one big room of an abandoned high school building

No comments: