Sam Spagnolo Insisted On Going Out The Same Way He Lived, While He Was Still Standing Up

Sam Spagnolo, a member of the Rancho Cucamonga City Council for more than 17 years, died this week.
“It is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of our beloved Rancho Cucamonga City Council/Fire Board Member, Sam Spagnolo,” a posting to the City of Rancho Cucamonga website states. “Council Member Spagnolo dedicated his life to public service.”
After a stint in the Navy, Spagnolo attended Chaffey College, at which point he was a volunteer with the Alta Loma Fire Department. In 1968, at the age of 27, he obtained a position as a firefighter with the Foothill Fire District, which provided fire prevention and suppression service to a more-than-50-square-mile area of unincorporated San Bernardino County stretching from the Upland City Limits in the west to the unincorporated county area bordering Fontana’s sphere of influence to the east.
In 1971, he purchased a home in what six years later would be incorporated as Rancho Cucamonga.
With the 1977 amalgamation of Alta Loma, Cucamonga and Etiwanda into Rancho Cucamonga, the Foothill Fire District continued as an independent agency to provide fire service to that city under a contract along with serving the unincorporated county areas at its periphery. In 1989, the fire district was subsumed by the City of Rancho Cucamonga to become the Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department. No longer an independent district, it shares the distinction with the Ontario Fire Department as one of only two such entities in the County of San Bernardino to have its financial books kept on a ledger separate from its city’s general fund.
Spagnolo lived and worked through the Foothill Fire District’s independent phase and then became a city employee with the district’s unification with Rancho Cucamonga. In the meantime, he advanced career-wise, achieving the rank of captain.
He was an active member of the Rancho Cucamonga Professional Firefighters Association, Local 2274 of the International Association of Fire Fighters.
In 1998, he was provided with the Cucamonga Peak Award. Rancho Cucamonga recognized him with its Harvest Award in 2001. In 2002 he garnered the Fire Quest Volunteer Award.
On October 21, 2003, what became known as the Grand Prix Fire began to burn out of control in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains above Fontana. On October 25, further to the east, the Old Fire ignited and then raged through the San Bernardino Mountains. Ultimately, the two fires would join when a few days later when the Old Fire jumped the I-215 Freeway and the Grand Prix Fired jumped the I-15 Freeway.
His fighting of the Grand Prix Fire, which burned 69,894 acres and destroyed 194 residences but claimed no lives, was the last hurrah of Spagnolo’s professional career. He subsequently received Congressional recognition for his leadership in the Grand Prix firefight. On December 31, 2003, at the age of 62 – an advanced one in modern times for those who engage in the young man’s profession of firefighting – Spagnolo retired from the Rancho Cucamonga Fire District.
He lost little time in retirement before he ran, successfully it would turn out, for city council in 2004. Also elected in 2004 was Lloyd D. Michael, who had been the Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department’s fire chief, and who had retired at about the same time Spagnolo did. Virtually all of Michael’s and Spagnolo’s careers with the Foothill Fire District/Rancho Cucamonga Fire Department overlapped.
Michael and Spagnolo joined Mayor Bill Alexander on the city council. Alexander was a fireman himself, having previously retired from the Ontario Fire Department. Thus, Rancho Cucamonga had a city council in which three of its five members – a majority and potential controlling voting bloc – were retired firefighters pulling comfortable taxpayer-paid public pensions. This created some degree of controversy as concern was mounting statewide over the unsustainability of the public employee pension system in California. Despite the growing alarm over the cost of government in general, in Rancho Cucamonga it was not as pronounced as elsewhere, since 34 percent of all of the households in the city had at least one government employee living within them. And while Alexander was bounced from the mayor’s position in 2006, the voters returned him to the council in 2010, as the city’s voters collectively seemed to have no problem allowing members of the firefighting profession to possess tremendous sway in running the city. To this day, Rancho Cucamonga firefighters are remarkably well treated, and the city’s fire department has a yearly budget that is larger than the general fund budgets of twelve of San Bernardino County’s 24 municipalities.
Spagnolo was reelected to the city council in 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020. He was serving as the president of the League of California Cities Inland Empire Division and as chairman of the Omnitrans Board of Directors.
He championed efforts to provide children safe walking routes to school, ban smoking on city-owned property and eliminate the use of Styrofoam products in the city.
He was the creator of the Ashley Smith Fund for child burn victims, a prime mover in the city’s cardio-pulmonary resuscitation program, a past board member of the American Heart Association and active in the firefighters’ annual Christmas toy drive.
“With over 50 years of service to our Rancho Cucamonga Community, this loss will be felt for years to come,” the city’s website states. “Sam Spagnolo was also a loving husband, father, and grandfather. Sam leaves behind his wife of over 50 years, Vi, three children, and seven grandchildren. As we remember this pillar of our community, it is important to acknowledge the positive impact his work has had in Rancho Cucamonga.”
A particular passion Spagnolo had was to establish in Rancho Cucamonga a memorial to the New York City firefighters who perished in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center. He worked with the non-profit organization Freedom’s Flame to obtain remnants from the World Trade Center, Pentagon, and Flight 93 that crashed in Shanksville, Pennsylvania on the day of the attack and brought them back to Rancho Cucamonga. He and Freedom’s Flame were working toward erecting the memorial on the grounds of one of the city’s fire stations or a city park when he passed away.
“Myself and my fellow city council/fire board members are deeply saddened by the loss of our colleague and friend,” said Mayor Lloyd Dennis Michael. “We are mourning his passing along with his family and friends. Council Member Spagnolo’s service to our Rancho Cucamonga Community will have a lasting impact for generations to come.”

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