The Story of Fire Protection in Sweetwater Valley
Fire never had been a concern to the residents of the Sweetwater area, there just weren’t that many homes in the valley. The first recorded fire was the Allen home in 1906. It was all wood construction and did not take long to burn. The fire alarm rang out through the valley by ringing the bell on the boarding house owned by the Sweetwater Fruit Company, not far from the Allen home.
A second residential fire took place in 1907 and again the boarding house bell rang to call the hired hands in from the fields and respond to try to extinguish the fire.
No other fires were recorded until late 1948 when a home on Willow Road was destroyed by fire. This was one of the coldest winters residents could remember. Temperatures had plummeted to 19 degrees at night, and snow fell and remained on Mt. San Miguel for at least a week.
Citizens realizing how vulnerable they were, decided that better fire protection was needed. Now, the only fire protection provided was by the California Division of Forestry. The nearest station was on East J Street in Chula Vista. If additional trucks were required, they had to come from La Mesa.
The Sweetwater Fruit Company provided a fruit sprayer truck available to fight fires. They also installed a telephone in their offices and nearby at the La Tienda Cafe. When an alarm came in, the information was taken down, then the person ran to the Old Red Barn to ring the bell. This called the fruit company employees in from the orchards to operate the engine. They were given the location and then the fruit company employees raced to the fire. They would be aided by the Division of Forestry, when they finally arrived. This system was neither quick or very efficient. Often the fruit sprayer truck was out in the field. When the fire bell rang out the engine would have to dump its oil used to control insects on the trees, then fill the tank with water, all before responding to the fire.
Late in 1949, a group of concerned citizens held several meetings to see if there could be a better fire protection plan for the valley by forming a local fire department. At a meeting of the Sweetwater Mens Club, January 26, 1950, Scofield Bonnet brought before the members the idea of forming a volunteer fire department. The idea caught on. Less than a month later, on February 14, 1950, papers of incorporation were signed forming the Upper Sweetwater Valley Volunteer Fire Department. Don Herron, a 6th grade teacher at Ellen B. Allen School became the first Fire Chief and was aided by 15 volunteers.
Later, an additional sprayer truck from the Williams Ranch was added so there would always be a truck standing by available to be used for firefighting. No longer would time be wasted to dump the oil and refill the tank with water. On more than one occasion, residual oil was still in the hose lines causing the fire to flare up and spread briefly as fire fighters began to extinguish the fire. Each truck held 500 gallons of water and was equipped with a spray nozzle. The engine had no real home, it was kept under trees and covered with a canvas tarp until needed. It was parked near the Old Red Barn. The barn was a valley landmark until it was demolished in 1960 to make room for the Bonita Village Shopping Center.
Money to operate the fire department was needed. Donations were obtained through benefit horse shows and $25.00 a year subscriptions from residents. The first horse show in June of 1950 held in the arena next to the Red Barn raised $1300, enough to purchase a surplus 1931 Moreland Engine from CDF for $750.00. A picnic and fundraiser was held to raise money to equip the engine. During the picnic, a fire was spotted across the valley and the Moreland and all available volunteers responded.