Recollections Of The Historic Needles Fire Department

Since at least 2004, the city of Needles has met the state law requirement to provide fire protection services within its boundaries by contracting with the San Bernardino County Fire Department (SBCoFD). Prior to that the City operated its own Fire Department with a Fire Chief and Paid Call Firefighters (PCFs) and volunteers. On January 5 of this year the SBCoFD Fire Chief notified the City that the cost of the contract would double from $600,000 to $1.224M. The budget the County demanded was for 6 firefighters at $149,087 each, portions of 4 management Chiefs at $270,495 (1) and $236,748 (2) and $197,796 in materials and supplies including dispatch, and County Administrative Overhead of $60,794. Alternatively they have provided a proposal for reduced service level of 3 firefighters and a portion of 4 chiefs, supplies and administrative overhead for $612,000. County offered four alternatives, either 1) pay the additional charges, 2) obtain fire services from another provider, 3) annex the city of Needles into the taxed County Service District thus taxing its citizens to makeup the difference, or 4) re-establish a city fire department. The city council opted for the path of least resistance for the city….annexation and taxation of its population. The decision divided the community with some resistant citizens forming the Needles Fire Auxiliary. While attempting to reestablish the city fire department by voter initiative the city’s fire engine is the subject of controversy—it was transferred to the County as a part of the annexation and now bears the county seal/emblem on its doors as it continues to be housed in the city’s fire house waiting for the completion of the county fire station. Figure 1.
The fire engine subject to the county/city tug-a-war was not the City’s first. Prior to the county taking the reigns, the city had three fire engines that they were using for a period of time. The Needles Fire Auxiliary is researching fire truck history in the community and recollections are currently being recorded.
Though not the same 1956 fire engine as in the photo (Figure 2), locals recall a Needles fire engine that looked very similar to the circa 1950s Seagrave pictured. At the time of the purchase of the fire engine in 1956, Mark M. Wetmore (81), long-time resident of Needles, claims to have been the youngest member the fire department. He was 21 at the time. He reported that he was responsible for having wrote the check for $1000 for the payment on the truck. The funds came from a local fundraising campaign and Wetmore recalls selling Christmas trees as part of that effort.
The truck was kept at the “National Old Trails Garage” between the “Burger Hut” and the Claypool building (now Palo Verde College) which is now a vacant lot. Wetmore recalls that the proprietor of the garage at the time was Bob Lorrimer and Lorrimer’s name is French for “saddle maker.”
Wetmore describes the fire department at the time as a “volunteer” fire department and recalls that Howard Cox was the Fire Chief. “There was a system of steam whistles that was used to alert volunteers. One short with two longs, one long with a short, etc. would determine exactly what precinct the fire was located. By the time the one leaving the fire station with the fire truck got to the fire, all of the volunteers would have arrived because they knew exactly where to go and could see the smoke.” He added that the Fire Chief “had a good control over the system and got training scheduled for everyone as well. The California Department of Industrial Education would send instructors to Needles to provide them with training on fire fighting techniques.”
“At the time, the town was prosperous and you very seldom saw boarded up house or a “for sale” sign. Over the years, prosperity has provided us with some of the finest parking lots in the country…one of the best examples is right down town here where the California Hotel used to be.”
The whereabouts of the Seagraves today is not exactly known however Wetmore and others say that it must have been sold, that it was restored by the owners who reportedly now live in Kingman, Arizona, and frequently show it off in local parades.
Prior to that, the City had available to them a truck that had been gifted to them by General George S. Patton, recalls Wetmore. “The truck was said to be outfitted with water tanks and hoses and pumps built on a heavy duty four wheel drive military truck, an American LaFrance. A brass plaque was rivoted on to the panel on the passenger side with a description of the vehicle, its size, weight, tonnage and various dimensions. There was also a diagram of the gear shift panel. Another brass plaque was also riveted there on the panel and it stated that the truck had been donated to the City of Needles by General George S. Patton.
The city of Needles was founded in May 1883 as a result of the construction of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway which originally crossed the Colorado River at this point. The name was derived from the Needles, pointed mountain peaks where the wind-blown holes in them (which can only be seen by boat from the Colorado River), at the south end of the valley.
Originally a tent town for railroad construction crews, the railroad company built a hotel, car sheds, shops and a roundhouse. Within a month the town also boasted a Chinese washhouse, a newsstand, a restaurant, a couple of general stores, and nine or ten saloons. The town became the largest port on the river above Yuma, Arizona.The Railway and the Fred Harvey Company built the elegant Neoclassical and Beaux-Arts style El Garces Hotel and Santa Fe Station in 1908 which was considered the “Crown Jewel” of the entire Fred Harvey chain. The landmark building is on the National Register of Historic Places and is currently being restored.
William W. Light, a former railroad engineer who after 38 years retired in 1997, attested to the fact that just about every locomotive catches fire at some point as “there is a lot of heat coming off the engine and with all the pressure and all the fuel there is bound to be a fire. Turbo chargers get hot and every one catch fire at some point. Coming back from Barstow we were hauling an empty coal train going back to New Mexico. The caboose calls me up and he can see it better than I can from his perspective on the curve. He called out ‘you have three engines on fire.’ Three! We usually only have one, think we better put it out, I said. We put it out but all the fire extinguishers were expended. I said it might catch fire again and we’ll have to watch it burn. We were coming to Needles. I get into Needles and there was nobody was there so we went through with no fire extinguishers. We didn’t get paid extra for putting out the fires and the extinguishers weighed 50 lbs. We had to pull the pin and there is nozzle that releases a dust powder of fire retardant chemicals. We never got paid extra [for fighting fire, using chemicals, lifting equipment or being submitted to dangerous situations].
“Everyone thinks that a fire fighter is some one who puts out fires—they pull on their pants, they’re ready to go whenever that bell goes off, hit the brass pole, slide down, gather up their dalmatians and put on their big funny hats, then the way they go. Well that’s not the way it aways is. We had volunteer fire fighters who never got paid. Putting out fires in buildings and locomotives is a lot different than fighting forest or range fires like county does.”

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