1970 proved to be a prolific year for fires for the Kern County Fire Department. On January 5, 1970, one of Kern’s prime industrial structures, the Kern Fruit Company, was reported to be on fire. The building, still under construction, was to be the largest of its kind, when the eruption took over more than a quarter of a million square feet of the complex. Two engines from the Norris station were dispatched as a matter of routine, as well as a tanker from Riverview. Battalion Chief Carl Williams, who was en route to the fire, could see the smoke and immediately called in the second alarm. An engine and a tanker from Highland and a tanker from the Niles Street station responded. Three minutes after receiving the alarm, Captain Fred Croson and the Norris crew arrived at the location. Employees of the building had managed to shut the fire doors to prevent the fire from further destruction. The crew’s efforts concentrated their effort preventing the fire from spreading to the 8 acres (32,375 m2) of roof. Fourteen minutes from the initial call, all second alarm equipment had arrived on the scene. The water system for the building was still under construction so lines were promptly laid to a nearby canal to supply the lines at the fire. At the height of the battle, six trucks and over 50 men were engaged to save the remainder of the building. Mop-up crews spent the night in mid-twenty degree temperatures to continue to extinguish the remainder of the flare ups. Preliminary reports indicated that the fire turned out to be the largest and most destructive fire in the history of Kern County to that date.
The manpower used at the Kern Fruit Company fire was to be challenged on September 25, 1970 by the Rankin Ranch fire. A brush fire was reported on the Lion’s Trail, a local route from Caliente to Walker Basin. The “first-in” was Captain Emmitt Hughes who reported heavy Santa Ana winds. A second-alarm was issued and air tankers were ordered. Within an hour, days off were canceled and every available man was sent to the scene. By nightfall, over 800 acres (320 ha) had been consumed. By morning, the fire has blackened over 2,000 acres (810 ha) and was still moving very quickly, due to high winds and low humidity. Air tankers and bulldozers that were sent to the fire proved futile in fighting the blaze. Fire lines that were constructed were quickly abandoned as the fire travelled too quickly. By the second day, over 130 KCFD firefighters were on the lines and more available help was on the way from the California Correctional Institute in Tehachapi. The fire continued into the evening of the second day and had reached over 11,000 acres (45 km2). By the morning of the third day with no control in sight, the Rankin Ranch fire had consumed over 15,000 acres (6,100 ha). All available air tankers had been dispatched to Southland fires leaving only hand crews to fight the fire. The National Guard from Fresno and Bakersfield had been called in to provide transportation to and from fire lines. Inmate crews from the northern end of the state began arriving by the fourth day. By nightfall of the fourth day, the fire had raced up the south slope of Breckenridge Mountain and began threatening vacation homes, two television tower sites, a Kern County Communications repeater, a US Forest Service lookout and 9,000 acres (3,600 ha) of timber. The day crews were joined by the night crews to put together an effort to put an end to the fire. The fifth day, winds subsided and humidity levels rose. All crews were held on the lines. Some of the men had been at it for over 33 hours straight but the fire had been beaten. Total area lost between public and private land was over 32,000 acres (130 km2) with minor injuries reported and only one structural loss, totaling $410,966.00. No fire had ever taxed the county as much.
At the same time crews were fighting the Rankin Ranch fire, a second fire originated on US Forest Service land on Greenhorn Mountain approximately 30 miles (48 km) to the north. The fire entered Kern County Fire Department protected land which further depleted the resources of the department. Heavy brush on the lines proved troublesome but the crews worked hard to fire out 20 mi (32 km) of lines in one day all completed by 3 bulldozers, 6 pick-up pumpers and 14 men. The bulldozers worked in areas so steep that mechanics were sent out to the location to repair the clutches and transmissions so that the equipment would not be out of service. The Red Mountain fire, as it was called, burned over 25,000 acres (10,000 ha) and was a total loss of approximately $1,743,356.00.
Following these disastrous fires, it became obvious that the KCFD needed additional radio channels to prevent communication confusions. Along with this request to the Board of Supervisors, came the need for more modern and sophisticated dispatching procedures and equipment. A survey was taken and it was determined that funds be allocated in the approximate amount of $2.5 million towards the purchase and construction of necessary facilities to update the communications structure.
In 1973, the total number of emergencies responded to by the KCFD was the highest yearly total in the department’s history. During the calendar year, 6,465 calls were answered. Included were 4,118 fires, 1,586 resuscitations and rescue calls, 646 false alarms, 80 emergency landings and 35 bomb threats. The previous years’ record was 5,781 calls.
Beginning in early 1974, the traditional names of the fire stations, named for the geographical areas that they served, changed to a numbering system in the first step towards a more modern communications system. The stations were also divided seven battalions that same year.
The creation of the “C” shift brought an additional 64 firefighters on January 1, 1975 to the department. The 72 hour work week was reduced to 56 hours by creating the third shift.
On the morning of December 20, 1977 the residents of the San Joaquin Valley awoke to windy conditions that would become even worse as the day progressed. Very strong Santa Ana winds had come to the valley on an otherwise clear day. The howling winds caused power outages throughout the area due to downed power lines. Interstate 5 was closed and very dangerous conditions existed on Highway 58. The fire stations around Kern County were extremely busy responding to a variety of calls including downed power lines, stranded motorists, structure fires and traffic accidents. A gas leak in a residence caused an explosion that destroyed the building and damaged 27 structures surrounding the explosion. The resident was blown across the street but was only slightly injured. The Niles Street (#42) station alone ran 115 calls in a two-day period without ever getting their beds made.
May 7, 1980 brought about an agreement between Kern County and the City of Bakersfield a Joint Powers Agreement whereby each entity would share the fire protection services in the metropolitan Bakersfield area. The agreement was important because it provided for the training; joint emergency response and dispatching of equipment regardless of municipal boundaries. The motivation for the agreement was a cost of almost $1 million dollars a year, by the realignment of station boundaries without the addition of new equipment or personnel. The closest station response also increased the efficiency of service to the greater Bakersfield area.
The Bodfish fire, which started on July 7, 1984, was caused by a homeowner burning brush in his backyard, which became out of control. The first unit in called in a second alarm because of the quick growth of the fire. The fire soon grew in to cover the rugged area around Lake Isabella, with no hope of catching up to it. Crews and equipment were slow getting to the area due to the closure of Highway 178 through the Kern River Canyon. The closure of the highway was due to the unstable condition of the rocks lining the walls of the canyon and had lasted three months, with all traffic going through Caliente to the southeast or over Greenhorn Mountain to the northeast. The firefighting efforts on the Bodfish fire lasted 7 days, with a total of 25.932 acres (104,940 m2) burned and 5 structures destroyed.
The Kern County Fire Department assigned the first female firefighters in January 1989.
In June 1989, the department headquarters moved from their old building on Golden State Avenue to the newly constructed offices, warehouse and auto shop facilities to the land near Olive Drive which was already occupied by the current training facility.
In June 1995, a request was received from the volunteer fire department, the “Bomberos Voultarios” in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, for a donation of a used fire truck. At the time, their equipment consisted of old engines that that needed to be push started before they could respond to an emergency. Coincidentally, that year the KCFD had received money from a grant to receive new equipment to replace vehicles deemed as “gas guzzlers” or “gross polluter” engines. A 1972 gas International was selected to go to Cabo San Lucas. The engine had done its time for 23 years in Greenfield, Randsburg, McFarland and Keene. Thanks to community’s donations, the engine was painted red and with the expertise of the KCFD Auto Shop personnel, many off duty hours were spent preparing the engine for the trip and its new duties in Mexico. Since 1995, the KCFD has continued to donate used fire apparatus that have exceeded their 20 year county life spans to many states in Mexico. The “Bomberos” have greatly benefited from Kern County’s donations as well as have smaller communities in Mexico.
In the mid-1990s, Kern County firefighters have participated in National Response Incident Management Teams. As of this date, Kern County firefighters have approximately 30 individuals assigned to California’s 5 Incident Management Teams. Through this participation, vast training and experience has been gained which enables team members to handle any similar incidents in their own community. Kern County firefighters have participated on Incident Management Teams at the Pentagon during the 9/11 attacks, along with the natural disaster of Hurricane Katrina.
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