Fire stations of the world: Glen Ellen Fire Department, Sonoma County, Northern California, US
Northern California’s Glen Ellen Fire Station is situated in Sonoma County in the US and is situated in station on Arnold Drive in Glen Ellen. The Glen Ellen Fire Department was established in September 1923 in the small town of, which had a population of only 784 at the 2010 census. Glen Ellen is located in the Wine Country and is part of the Sonoma Mountain AVA. Like all the communities in Sonoma Valley, Glen Ellen is home to many vineyards and wineries including BR Cohn Winery, Benziger Family Winery, Mayo Family Winery and Valley of the Moon Winery. The whole of Glen Ellen was severely damaged by the Nuns Fire during the October 2017 Northern California wildfires. The Glen Ellen Fire Department’s station house is a single-storey structure. Due to changing demographics and a decreasing number of volunteers, in 2017 the Glen Ellen Fire Department entered into a contract with the Valley of the Moon Fire Protection District to provide emergency fire and medical services. The Glen Ellen Fire Department remained its own entity but the move was reflective of an ongoing county-wide push to consolidate fire services. Since then, discussions were ongoing as to the creation of a valley-wide fire district. The GEFD opted to be part of the new district and on 1 July 2017, the Glen Ellen Fire Department district lines will officially dissolve and the Glen Ellen area became part of the newly formed Sonoma Valley Fire District.
The original Glen Ellen Fire Department statistics
Department type: mostly volunteer
Number of stations: 2
Fire fighting personnel
Full-time paid fire fighters: 2
Part-time paid fire fighters: 0
Volunteer fire fighters: 36
Non-fire fighting paid staff: 1
Non-fire fighting volunteers: 1
The formation of the Glen Ellen Fire Department can be traced back to September 1923, the date of one of the worst fires in Sonoma Valley recorded history. As reported by the Sonoma Index-Tribune, the fire was started by a group of men in Napa County who were trying to smoke out bees. The fire got away from them and spurred on by wind and dry brush, blazed through Nun's Canyon, Trinity and Cavedale roads and spread rapidly through Glen Ellen to Boyes Hot Springs, obliterating the town of Boyes and several nearby resorts.
At that time, Glen Ellen had no fire department or fire engine, only buckets of water and neighbours. In the memoir Childhood Memories of Glen Ellen, edited by Bob Glotzbach, long-time Glen Ellen resident and former Glen Ellen Fire Department chief Bill Meglen (who passed away in 2004) remembered the fire of 1923, “It was the largest fire ever in Glen Ellen. I can remember the fire coming out of the building next door and then our house and store caught fire. Pancrazi's building was across [from] Carquinez. It blistered the paint, that's all. He was lucky. If there was a lot of wind, it probably couldn't have been saved. That was my first experience with fires, and that was one reason why we were instrumental in helping get a fire truck for Glen Ellen.”
As a result of that threat to life and property, the townspeople saw the need to form their own fire department. The first fire truck for the Glen Ellen Fire Department was a 1924 Ford Model-T, initially stored in a garage behind the Poppe store (next to the Chauvet Hotel). Meglen was acting secretary in 1932, the first Captain appointed, and the first training officer. The first Fire Chief was Julius Pancrazi.
“There were all kinds of fundraisers in the early days,” Meglen continued in Glotzbach's book, “The Women's Club here in Glen Ellen donated money for years. There were donation jars in stores around town. Bingo games were run at Mayflower Hall, dances held in the Chauvet Hotel on the third floor and I remember O'Donnell donated a lot on O'Donnell Lane that was raffled off.” Meglen said the department paid around $4 000 for the second fire truck, a Dodge, bought in the 1930s, which was “a lot of money in those days.”
Not only was equipment less expensive in those days, the fire fighting system was also more low-tech than it is today. In Childhood Memories of Glen Ellen, Edward (Bud) Frideger recounted the process, “A fire would be reported to a telephone operator who activated a large siren on a 40 foot pole at the firehouse. Within minutes John Cambou or Ralph Horne and others raced to the firehouse. The first arrival was the driver; others jumped aboard or followed in their cars after the fire engine. The system was simple but efficient.”
Peter Van Fleet, who joined the department as a volunteer in 1985, also remembered some of the stories about the early days of the department and that in the 1930s Bill Meglen's wife was an active participant on calls. “His wife was the only one in the community with a driver's license,” said Van Fleet, “So she was designated to drive the fire truck.”
Van Fleet moved to Sonoma Valley in 1978, missing the valley's second largest fire in September, 1964. According to accounts in Dee Sand's book Kenwood Yesterday and Today, the fire began on Torrieri Ranch on Nelligan Road and burned north to Adobe Canyon and south to Agua Caliente, consuming 10 000 acres in three days. A Sonoma Index-Tribune article reported, “Mutual aid was never more finely displayed... There were 75 pieces of fire fighting apparatus on the scene from as far north as Redding and south as Fresno.”
Starting in 1985, Van Fleet served at the department's newly-built Station 3 on the corner of Arnold Drive and Madrone Road. Up until 1985, the fire district had one station on Arnold Drive in Glen Ellen and a second location where they keep a Type 3 engine at Derickson Ranch near Enterprise Road. That station closed in the mid-90s. Van Fleet served as fire chief from 2008 to 2014 and most recently sat on the last Glen Ellen Fire Protection District board of directors.
Chairman Peter Van Fleet wrapped up 65 years of history with the tap of a virtual gavel at the 9 June 2017 Board of Directors meeting Glen Ellen Fire Protection District when the organisation became part of the larger Sonoma Valley Fire District. Van Fleet and fellow director Hal Weise also ended their long and satisfying careers serving their community as volunteer fire fighters. They resigned, in part, to make way for their fellow directors, Matt Atkinson, Mark Emery and Mark Johnson, to take seats on the new district's seven-seat board. Both find retirement attractive at this time in their lives. “I'm ready to go,” Weise said in an interview. “I would have served for 40 years in 2021. I was a volunteer for about 33 years and on the board for the last five or six years.”
Van Fleet, a civil engineer by training, arrived in Sonoma County in 1971. He became a licensed contractor, building and remodelling homes and later worked with Paul Brown to form Adobe Associates, engineering. He joined the fire department in 1985, the year the Madrone and Arnold fire station was opened. “I held every position as a fire fighter, an association officer and I became Chief in 2008, serving for six years before turning the job over to Matt (Atkinson) in 2014,” when he moved on to the GEFD Board of Directors.
Higher costs of professional fire fighters, expensive equipment, intensive training, consequent liability and sheer population growth have pushed the county and its multitudinous independent fire districts to seek cost savings and efficiencies through mergers, such as the one Glen Ellen is doing with the Valley of the Moon Fire District and the county managed Mayacamas Volunteer Fire District. The three former districts merged with the Sonoma Valley Fire District, with all of the paid and volunteer people working for the new district. The individual fire fighter associations recombined into a new association and merge their funds over the next year, as the law and financial rules allow.
Sources: Glen Ellen Fire Department and Kenwood Press