Say the words “fire” and “Cambria” in the same sentence, and most people think of conflagration in the town’s trademark Monterey pine forest, or in the wildlands that surround the small town.
But 125 years ago, on Oct. 1, 1889, the community’s most devastating blaze destroyed more than a block of homes and businesses in the Victorian-era downtown.
It started about 2:30 a.m. in a woodpile behind the three-story Proctor House hotel at the corner of Main and Bridge streets.
One headline from reports after the fire seems eerily familiar now: “What happens in a town without water.”
Author Geneva Hamilton, in her 1974 book “Where the Highway Ends — Cambria, San Simeon and the Ranchos,” wrote that in late summer of 1889, B.F. Muma of San Simeon Bay remarked about “the extreme dryness of the coastal area. In August, several brush and forest fires were reported, giving considerable trouble in various parts of the coastal range, many of them apparently started by spontaneous combustion. The whole area was noted as being ‘tinder dry.’ Not only was the ground dry, but the atmosphere contained much less moisture than normal for the season.”
While reminiscing is one way to look at such a tragedy, so is looking forward to find out what’s changed about fire protection in general in the last century-and-a-quarter, and especially what’s different about it now in Cambria.
Cambria had an all-volunteer firefighting crew. The Hope Fire Company, formed in 1877, had an average of 28 members during the first six years, according to notes assembled by volunteer department historian Dexter Upton, a Cambria firefighter for about four decades. Upton’s retrospective on Cambria firefighting formed a recent display for the Cambria Historical Museum. “There were no homes in the pines” in the late 1880s, Upton wrote, “and the village was level and compact,” with some homes residences surrounding the business areas. Many other residents lived on ranches in the surrounding valleys.
“Water could be dipped from watering troughs, hand-dug wells, cisterns and the creek, to be delivered by bucket-brigade to the fire,” Upton wrote. He added that some elevated tanks had been built, providing limited quantities of water through small hoses, and many homes had soda-acid extinguishers, which were also part of the fire company’s equipment.
Volunteer firefighters lived in town or nearby and “were called to action mostly by the ringing of a bell, and they rushed to haul the hook-and-ladder wagon, with its dozen or more leather buckets, to the scene of the fire,” Upton wrote.
“Many villagers kept horses or cows near their homes, and their water-troughs provided a quick but limited supply of water,” he continued.
“Some homes had hand-dug wells, and many were near enough to the creek to allow effective action by a ‘bucket brigade,’ passing the pails from hand to hand.”
Could the hotel have been saved and the fire prevented from spreading? Perhaps. The nearest source of water was a 6,000 gallon elevated tank, but the hose that could have delivered the water to the fire had a hole in it.
According to Cambria Fire Department captains Steve Bitto and Jonathan Gibson, today’s fire service is vastly different than in the late 1880s.
For instance, the department has: A 1,500-gallon-per-minute, fire engine; a 1988 engine; an 1,800-gallon water tender; and a late 1920s Lincoln Touring Car modified for firefighting.
The department’s other firefighting advantages include:
A hydrant system to deliver municipal water throughout town.
A three-firefighter engine crew on duty 24/7.
Stronger, stricter building codes.
Fire-alarm systems that alert firefighters much faster.
Fire-sprinkler systems in some buildings.
* Thermal-imaging cameras to find heat sources in hidden areas.
Self-contained breathing equipment and fire resistant clothing.
Mobile radios, pagers and texting for notifying staff.
Central dispatching system; and
“Mutual aid” from other fire departments,” albeit up to 45 minutes away.
As for staffing, Cambria Fire has:
Three fulltime captains whose salaries are from $5,433 to $6,604 per month.
Three fulltime fire engineers with salaries ranging from $4,506 to $5,447 a month.
Fire Chief Mark Miller, who makes $7,000 a month, and
11 reserve firefighters who make $9 to $10 an hour.
All of the above also are emergency medical technicians or full paramedics, although they don’t receive extra pay for that expertise. Two of the full-time employees live in Cambria. None of the reservists do, and most of them have other jobs.
Cambria Fire has battled many downtown and business fires since the Cambria Fire Protection District formed in 1933. A few of those individual, modern-day blazes destroyed were Linn’s restaurant; the business where the West End Bar & Grill is now; the Redwood Café; and the Warren house.
Other blazes damaged the Brambles Restaurant, Mustache Pete’s Italian Eatery, the Cambria Pines Lodge and other motels and businesses.
And, in an echo of the past, a blaze in May 2012 started in a shed behind Cambria Café and Mozzi’s, in the same block where the 1889 fire demolished everything.
Cambria Fire and crews from Cal Fire Cambria, Hearst Castle, Cayucos and Morro Bay fought the blaze, which was extinguished in less than an hour.