With no crew and faced with a fire that eventually would burn 12,000 acres in 10 days, Orange County fire warden W. E. Adkinson plucked volunteers from fields, bars and poolrooms to battle the blaze.
The year was 1926.
In the 59 years since, the science of fighting fires in Orange County has advanced tremendously but, in a sense, things are still very much the same.
Although outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment and the highest-paid crews in the county, the Orange County Fire Department still relies heavily on volunteers.
Every day, electronic pagers go off in households and businesses, and volunteer firefighters race to battle fires and attend to heart-attack victims. When they are not rushing to emergencies, the volunteers are students, housewives, grocery clerks and business professionals.
But critics of the volunteer force say it is a dangerous paradox that a sprawling metropolitan area such as Orange County uses non-professionals. "If it was my wife or 6-year-old son that was in need of care or was being taken from a fire . . . in all cases I would opt for the career firefighter," said engineer-paramedic Bill Anderson. His station, No. 26 in Irvine, soon will be getting 25 volunteers who will be working with him and 14 other career firefighters.
In some county fire stations, there is open resentment of volunteers and charges that they are not sophisticated enough to handle modern-day emergencies. At the same time, the volunteers' supporters say they are a key to economic survival in the post-Proposition 13 era, fortifying firefighting strength at reduced cost and little risk.
Unlike many fire departments, Orange County's volunteers are not relegated to the less populated and rural areas. They are rapidly moving into the growing areas, such as Mission Viejo, where the number of emergency calls has exploded and the full-time crews often need assistance.
By contrast, Los Angeles County deploys its 98 volunteer firefighters primarily in the desert areas. And Los Angeles County fire officials like it that way, said Chief Deputy Earl Fordham.
"In a metropolitan area, it takes too much training and expertise not to have a full-time firefighter," he said. "The volunteers work fine in the areas in the desert and the areas that do not have these high-rises, chemical leaks and refineries and tank-truck hazards . . . There is no way you train a (volunteer) firefighter in all the areas that a paid firefighter needs to know."
The Orange County Fire Department serves an area of 524 square miles--from San Clemente to the Los Angeles County border--and 10 of the county's 26 cities.
It covers the region with a contingent of 555 paid firefighters and 530 volunteers. Soon, the volunteers may outnumber their career counterparts, for while the number of paid firefighters remains frozen by county budget constraints, crews of 25 volunteers each are being assigned to many of the county's 43 stations.
The financial benefit of using volunteers is substantial. Outfitting a station with three full-time, three-person shifts costs $478,000 a year in salary and benefits, said Capt. Mark Reinhold, spokesman for the county Fire Department. But the cost of staffing the same station with 25 volunteers is only $70,000 a year--for equipment, uniforms and the volunteers' $7 hourly stipend.
"For a little over 1% of the budget, we represent nearly 50% of the firefighting force," said Dennis Jones, president of the Paid Call Firefighters Assn., which represents the Orange County volunteers.
"It comes down to economics," said Orange County Fire Chief Larry Holms, who is in charge of all volunteer and paid firefighters. "The way that we provide fire protection with a mixture of full-time and volunteer firefighters allows us to provide a much greater level of fire protection for the dollar than we would otherwise.
"If the volunteers weren't there, what would you rather have? No one? Or the volunteer company arriving in a timely fashion?"
All of the county supervisors, who ultimately allocate funds for the Fire Department, praise the money-saving aspects of the program. None voiced any safety concern.
"The volunteers have performed an invaluable service to county residents over many, many years," said Supervisor Ralph Clark. "I think we are all in their debt."
Robert J. Brunot, coordinator and commander of the fire academy at Santa Ana College, is typical of the program's fans. He calls it "excellent. From a fire protection standpoint it certainly augments the full-time firefighters and gives the pre-entry firefighter an opportunity to gain some valuable firefighting experience."
Historically, Orange County has always depended on volunteer firefighters. Until a county department was formed in 1980, in fact, volunteers outnumbered career firefighters nearly 4 to 1. Today, 14 of the county's 43 stations are still all-volunteer.
But it's not tradition that keeps the volunteer program alive.