A brief history of the Bodega Bay Fire Department
It all began with boats exploding. That’s what a gathering at Bodega Bay learned about the history and evolution of the local fire department at the joint meeting in September of Rancho Bodega Historical Society and the Bodega Bay Fire Protection District. It was an eye-opener for many Bodega Bay residents who did not know of the department’s colorful history.
In 1953 the post-war fishing fleet had grown, and the boats were powered by gasoline, not diesel. Fumes could gather in the holds of the vessels and be set off by a spark when fishermen started the engines.
“The explosions would wake us in the early hours. They rocked the town. You’d feel them even more than hear them,” said Shirley Ames. “Men would be badly burned, and boats badly damaged.”
The town knew it had to do something so it turned to Ames’ father, the late Dusty Rhodes. Before moving to Bodega Bay to open a service station, he had started a fire department in West Sacramento and served as its chief. He did the same for Bodega Bay. The town began its first responder efforts by purchasing a used fire engine for $300.
The first firehouse was built by volunteer labor on land donated by the Aikens family. The town held dances and other fundraisers to buy the materials. At first the fire department limited itself to fires, and as the fleet switched over to newly developed diesel engines as time rolled on the volunteer fire department was not needed as often. But there was a new problem — a need for emergency medical services. The 911 system did not exist, and getting help wasn’t easy with the nearest ambulances located an hour away.
In 1975 Bodega Bay organized itself again. It formed BBAR, Bodega Bay Area Rescue. Local volunteers took advanced first aid classes, and the town raised the money to buy a used ambulance.
“We had no home base, so whoever was on duty took the ambulance home,” explained Mary Cook, who was an original BBAR volunteer. Volunteer dispatchers had red telephones that they used as an emergency line to call whoever had the ambulance into action. The fire chief, fisherman Paul Wedel, by this time, also had a button in his house his kids were told to never push. It would set off an alarm.
“Once a kid pushed the button, and I had to rush down to the firehouse to let everyone know it was a false alarm,” Sue Wedel recalled.
The rudimentary system worked well for a few years. It was burden for the volunteers, taking care of accident victims, and — with the help of Sheriff Deputy Dennis McAllister, who was trained in cliff rappelling — of those who fell or drove off the coastal cliffs. Three ambulances later, the now EMT-trained volunteers realized they needed to hire some help. They turned to the fire department and asked the burgeoning town for tax support. The fire department and BBAR merged becoming one first-responder department.
In January 1982 the coast was slammed with a massive storm. Bridges washed out, roads washed away; a house was swept away in a mudslide, and the cliff under the firehouse melted in the downpour, leaving the building just 18 inches from the edge. A crack in the firehouse floor developed. OSHA got involved. The town had to build a new firehouse. The fire district board made it clear to the community that it was in everyone’s best interest to raise the money. The town taxed itself. (See more history about this in Chief Grinnell’s accompanying letter about Measure D, which is on the ballot in November.)
Today the $300 fire engine, and cracked firehouse has evolved to a state-of-the-art fire station that houses 14 full-time employees, 12 volunteers, two interns and four part-time employees. It serves a 34 square mile area for fire protection and an even larger area for medical services, 24 hours a day.
At the meeting, the newcomers to Bodega Bay made it clear they took pride in what the old-timers had done to move with the times, as a once small fishing village developed into the major tourist destination and a retirement community that Bodega Bay is today.