125 years of service to Willows
Few fire departments in the North State can claim the length of history and the dedication of service as the one in Willows.
More than a quarter of a century older than the agencies in Orland, Corning and Durham, the Willows Volunteer Fire Department will celebrate 125 years of service to the community on Sunday.
"We've come a long way from a two-hose company to what we are today," said Willows Fire Chief Wayne Peabody.
The Willows Fire Department was organized in 1887 after four massive fires swept through the downtown.
The most destructive fire was May 30, 1882, in which 33 buildings were destroyed at a cost of $200,000.
In 1886, in the same location, an entire block was taken by fire at an estimated cost of $140,000.
As a result, the organized bucket brigade of the time sprang into the first two fire companies — each supplied with a man-pulled cart, 1,100-foot cotton hoses with patent cut-off nozzles, ladders, hooks and axes.
"I think people were tired of fires destroying the town," Peabody said.
In 1914, the city purchased its first motorized apparatus — a new Knox Pumper. It's second engine was a 1923 American LaFrace, capable of pumping 750 gallons of water per minute.
The original fire station was located at City Hall on Butte Street — the site of the present day Willow Walk Mall.
The present station on South Butte Street was built in 1962.
In 1974, the Glenn County Board of Supervisors formed the Willows Rural Fire Protection as a special district.
Together, the two departments cover a total of 96 square miles.
What has not changed in 125 years, is the city's reliance on volunteer firefighters, Peabody said.
Since 1947, the Willows Fire Department has maintained only five paid staff members, including the fire chief, yet has responded to hundreds of emergency situations each year.
"We could not do this without the support of the community," said Peabody. "The city or county could never afford to provide this kind of service without the use of volunteers."
In 1887, 60 volunteer firefighters were led by Chief Henry Bielar.
Today, about 50 men and women are led by Peabody and Willows Rural Fire Protection District Chief Reggie Michaud.
More than 20 are trained firefighters, in three companions, who answer the call to suppress fires, rescue people, and respond to traffic accidents, medical emergencies and hazardous situations and materials almost daily.
The rest are auxiliary members and support personnel, who assist at the scene, dispatch when needed and help raise money for supplemental equipment.
"A lot has changed since I first started firefighting," said former Rural Fire Chief Buck Cavier, 87, who is still a volunteer. "I remember when we finally got turn-out gear. When I joined in 1948, they just gave you a hat, which isn't a whole lot of protection."
Although he joked about only being allowed to direct traffic and give advise at his age, Cavier said volunteering as a firefighter is something that requires dedication.
"Firefighting takes a lot training and experience," he said. "You have to want to do it and you have to be dedicated to it."
Although not the youngest firefighter on the roster, Lelia Perez, 24, has the dedication Cavier was talking about.
"I always had an interest in firefighting," said Perez, Rural Fire vice president. "I thought this would be a good way to give something back to my community."
One of three women who work in the mostly male-dominated field, Perez, who joined four years ago, said she has never been treated any differently than any other volunteer.
"I never had any brothers of my own, but I consider all of these men my brothers," said Perez, who is helping organize Sunday's quasquicentennial celebration. "A fire department is a family, and this is my family."
And a busy family it is.
The Willows Fire Department responded to 662 incidents last year, of which 70 percent were medical emergencies, Peabody said.
Although it represent only a small percentage of calls, structure fires constitute to greatest threat to the community and to personnel, he said.
The Willows Fire Department responded to 15 structure fires in 2011.
"We've had some bad fires over the years," said Cavier. "It can be pretty dangerous work."
In September 1973, Fire Chief Witmer Brenneman collapsed and died at the Willows station, after several hours of battling a vegetation fire than spread to the old Knight home west of Willows.
Cavier, who was out of town on the day of the fire, said it was a sad time for the department.
Brenneman was the only Willows firefighter ever killed in the line of duty, said Peabody, who makes training throughout the year a top priority.
Volunteers spend about 10 hours a month training for emergency medical situations, wildland and structural fires, search and rescue, vehicle extrication and stabilization, and handling situations involving hazardous materials.
The department is also involved in public education and fire prevention activities.
On Sunday, during its annual bean feed, the Willows Fire Department will celebrate 125 years of continuous service with an open house and station tour.
Old photos, the fire safety house and other exhibits will be on display.
"This is our way to say thank you to the community that has supported us for all these years," Peabody said.