The Fireperson Brigade

Crew in the Mayacamas
by Ralph Craib, Chronicle Correspondent

It is virtually a certainty that on a scorching, parched day out in the country this summer or fall a kid playing with matches or some idiot will flick a smoldering cigarette out of his car window.

Wisps of acrid grass and brush smoke will rise into the sky, and flames will instantly be licking up a hillside.

Joyce Bowen will hurriedly get her two tiny children to a neighbor who'll care for them. And she might find herself wheeling a new 15-ton Ford tanker-fire engine over winding mountain roads, red lights flashing, siren screaming.

Elsewhere "on the hill," as some residents call Mount Veeder in Napa county's Mayacamas mountains, Ila Crook might find herself heading in her pickup to take over the wheel of a fading 1946 Dodge pumper and to coax it on it's way to the fire.

Northern California's first all-woman fire crew - the nine "firepersons" of the Dry Creek-Lokoya Fire Protection District - will be headed for action.

They're housewives, one - and - all, residents mostly along the two main roads that traverse this part of Mayacamas, the range some eight miles west of Napa, that is part of the natural separation between Napa and Sonoma counties.

The range is both forest and grassland, an area of a few vineyards, most notably Christian Brothers at Mont La Salle and Mayacamas Vineyards atop Mount Veeder.

In an area of roughly 50 square miles, there are only a few scattered residences. State Division of Forestry fire rigs are half an hour away at Yountville and in Napa, and homeowners have, for some 28 years, financed their own fire department. The new $32,000 fire engine is provided through Civil Defense funds.

This year, the fire danger is acute: last winter's drenching rains meant grass far higher than normal and right now it is explosively dry. It is why the new "firepersons" of Dry Creek - Lokoya are almost certain to face some big fires this summer.

"And let me tell you something," says Norman Silver, Napa county fire coordinator and training officer for 11 volunteer fire departments in the county, "they're going to do a good job. They're very sharp and efficient and they have learned well."

Silver, who had 18 years with the State Division of Forestry before coming to Napa County last September, has been running weekly drills with the Dry Creek-Lokoya mothers for almost ten months.

The women, he said, have vastly improved the efficiency of the little fire department.

"This isn't women's lib," says Mrs. Bowen. "This is just common sense and being reasonable."

"The men are away at work during the week," says Bea Henke, whose husband is chairman of the volunteer firemen. "We started thinking that it would be absurd if someone's home burned down because there was no one to drive the trucks."

"I couldn't help getting interested because George has been so active in fighting fire over these years," Mrs. Henke says. So she "started talking things over" with a friend, Ginnie Feckner, and attended "practice burns" at training sessions of the male volunteers.

Silver began putting this informal training on a formal basis not long after he took over the county job last September.

The women have gotten together weekly ever since and attendance has been consistently high, says Silver.

"We are all mothers" says Mrs. Henke, "and, of course, we are concerned for our kids. We have to be able to pitch in because we are alone up here much of the time."

Her husband, for instance, is a supervisor at Kaiser Steel fabricating plant in the Napa Valley, and that's maybe half an hour away should an emergency occur.

Mrs. Bowen's husband is even farther away during weekdays; he's an engineer in Fairfield, over in the next county. She's a volunteer fireperson because, "I wanted to be able to do something to save my own home or the home of my neighbor.

It is, indeed, a sort of frontier endeavor that the very determined women are involved in.

They ran a typical field problem, "evolution," in Silver's fireman talk the other day. The pickup trucks that are a necessity of country life began pulling in at 10 a.m. on a high bluff above Bea Henke's home hidden in a canyon and over a creek below.

The big Ford fire engine couldn't possibly be taken over the small road bridge leading to the the house: the district's old Dodge fire truck could make it, however, and did. Ginnie Fecker and Vera Schaublin had it pushing out water from it's own tank in a minute or two.

Alice Beers rolled in a few minutes later in her husbands pickup, now being used to carry the pump and tanks from one of the district's more elderly trucks which recently suffered total collapse. She began pumping too.

A few minutes later, the 4-foot 11-inch Mrs. Crook arrived on a swaying steel cable foot bridge with 400 feet of big fire hose from the Ford fire engine above.

"You don't have any confidence in this at first," Mrs. Schaublin says. "But all of a sudden, it dawns on you that you can operate this equipment. Suddenly you know what you thought you could never possible know."

"We're a very determined group. Everybody works every job: driving, running the pumps, using the ladders, manning the hoses, using our portable pump to get water out of pools or creeks. Now we're very sure that we can get the trucks to any danger and keep them in operation."

"They're beautiful," says Silver.

"The men weren't very dependable" Silver went on. "They have other responsibilities. The gals have added a lot of stability to this department."

"We had a training fire on the Silverado Trail recently, a house that was donated to us. The women put out eight fires in that building. Eight times the women drove up, not knowing where the place would be burning, and got it out.

"Then it was the men's turn. The fire got away from them and the place burned to the ground."