Before the arrival of European explorers, fire was a vital, natural part of the environment. Fire served the land by cleansing and renewing as part of a natural cycle. In fact most of the vegetation in what is now Marin County California depended on fire to renew itself. Fire removes old, unhealthy and dead vegetation, making room for vigorous new, healthy growth.
When European immigrants began settling Marin County in the 18th century, landowners, homeowners and workers controlled natural wildfires in order to protect their property and investments. As Marin's population expanded into the surrounding hills, controlling frequent wildfires became increasingly important. Wildfires regularly burned large tracts, along with the new homes, crops and infrastructure.
Fire Protection Associations in Marin
The Tamalpais Forestry Association was formed around the turn of the century. Not much is known about the Tamalpais Forestry Association. The California State Legislature had been discussing legislation to provide funding for forest fire suppression as early as 1881, but legal authority or legislative help had not been forthcoming. This inaction on the part of the State prompted a few communities to organize to meet local needs. The Tamalpais Forestry Association was such an organization.
In 1904, the Stockman’s Protective Association and in 1909 the Redwood Fire and Protective Association were organized. These associations were created to fight the fire threat to their industry and were presumable funded by their respective industries as well. It may be assumed that one source of funding for the Tamalpais Forestry Association came from business interests who stood to benefit from the Association’s fire prevention and suppression activities – the protection of the resources on and around Mount Tamalpais. Participation based on value of the land protected was suggested, however membership was offered to all interested persons. In October, 1904, William Kent, then President of the Tamalpais Forestry Association made a strong appeal to the people of the County to join the Association and to contribute their share toward prevention and fighting of fires. He said in part…"there are few residents of Marin County who realize the extent and destructiveness of the recent fire on Tamalpais. There are fewer still who knows what a menace it was to the remainder of the watershed and to all the scenic beauty of the mountain. The Mountain and all its wooded ridges are by all odds the most valuable asset of Marin County, not by any means in land values to the owners, but as furnishing to all who live here and visit here unrivaled scene of natural beauty".
The destruction of the forest on Mt. Tamalpais by a succession of fires would be an irreparable damage in every local interest. The task of marshaling, transporting, directing, supplying provisions and tools was one of great difficulty. The officers of the Association were on hand day and night directing and assisting in the work. In all the Association expended over $1,400 in protecting common property of Marin County and succeeded in averting a calamity that would have been felt by everyone. On account of its service past and present, the Forestry Association should have enrolled in its membership all who can afford to pay annual dues of $2.50. Eventually, the county should provide a fire department out of county funds. This agitation by Mr. Kent public spirited conservationist and community leaders later resulted in the formation of the Tamalpais Forest Fire District supported by taxes.
The Forestry Association purchased tools and equipment and located them in large tool caches throughout the Tamalpais watershed. They were then available on short notice to crews fighting fires. These caches contained shovels, brush hooks, canteens and lanterns and other equipment. The Association also organized efforts of many of the town volunteer fire departments to utilize and coordinate their volunteers and equipment in the event of a forest fire.
The Tamalpais Fire Association was formed in 1914 to continue and expand upon the work of the Forestry Association its formation was again evidence of both local initiative and frustration in regards to the State’s inability to deliver meaningful wildland or forest fire protection services. It was a logical evolution in a process that was a lead to the creation of the Tamalpais Forest Fire District the original goal of the Forestry Association – formation of a tax supported fire agency. It appears that in creating the new Tamalpais Fire Association a strategy had been developed to encourage and ultimately seek the creation of a tax based forest fire protection organization. A professional would be hired to formulate both short and long range plans for the immediate upgrading of forest fire prevention and suppression activities and the establishment of a tax based organization to carry on the work of protecting Marin’s watershed and wildland area.
F.E. "Fritz" Olmsted was employed as Forester for the Association. Olmsted was retired form a career in the U.S. Forest Service and had outstanding credentials. He had established the US Forest Service Headquarters for California in 1908. In San Francisco Omlsted immediately set about creating a plan to reduce fire loss in the watershed surrounding Mount Tamalpais. It would include an active fire prevention campaign which would distribute and post fire prevention posters throughout the area, organize and provide equipment for volunteer fire fighting crews and establish a system of patrolling the Mountain during summer fire season. The volunteers would come for the most part from already organized volunteer fire departments in the towns and villages built up in the crescent that surrounds the base of Mount Tamalpais from Mill Valley to Fairfax. In order to finance the operation land owners were asked to contribute the sum of 10 cents per acre. Other funds were solicited form civic groups and wealthy businessmen who had an interest in protecting the Mountain. The Marin County Board of Supervisors provided some funding as well.
The Marin Municipal Water District had been formed by referendum in 1912. It was the first district of its kind in the State. Its formation was at least in part a response to a number of small independently owned water companies some of whom may have been less than reliable and were certainly a constant source of political turmoil and petty bickering regarding their practices their practices within the communities they served. By 1919 the MMWD had passed a three million dollar bond issue, purchased 5,500 acres of watershed land, and constructed Alpine Dam. This was land which was publicly owned and was an important resource to the citizens of Marin County as their primary watershed. The Tamalpais Forestry Association served about 40,000 acres which covered most of Mount Tamalpais, Bolinas Ridge, the Cascades near Fairfax and the Pine Mountain are to the west.
In the period 1914 through 1917 the Association reported that they experienced an annual average of 13 fires for an annual average of 216 acres burned in each of the three years. Also, during that time, 27 miles of fire breaks had been constructed. Hyram E Wyman was Head Patrolman and supervised much of the work. William Hodge had become Assistant to Olmsted. Hodge gad a masters degree in forestry and had worked in several high ranking Federal forestry positions including the California District. They were actively working to seek the formation of a Forest Fire District through legislative action.
The Tamalpais Forest Fire District
On May 21, 1917 the Tamalpais Forest Fire District was created. This was the first legally constituted forest fire district in the State of California. Maximum taxing ability for the District was limited to ten cents per hundred dollars. The District had the power to take all actions necessary to operate the District. The Board was responsible to set rates within that limitation. In 1921, the boundaries were enlarged by an act of the Legislature to take in territory from Saint Vincents to McNears Point. Again in 1929, the boundaries were enlarged to take in territory from Bolinas to Inverness and the Point Reyes Peninsula. By 1940 the District boundaries encompassed approximately 257 square miles or 164,480 acres. The District at that point covered Mount Tamalpais, Muir Woods National Monument, Mount Tamalpais State Park, Bolinas Ridge, Inverness Ridge, Carson Ridge, the Marin Municipal Water District watershed, Bolinas, Stinson Beach, Inverness, Olema, San Geronimo watersheds, and portions of East Marin.
Recent Large Fire History
The largest fire was in September 1923, which burned 40,000 acres from Lucas Valley to Bolinas. This same fire burned 35 homes in Woodacre Later that same year, the Tavern complex on the Summit of Mount Tamalpais burned to the ground. The second largest fire occurred in 1936 and burned 4,000 acres. The third largest in October 1917 on the ridge west of Inverness burned 2,000 acres. The fourth largest and the most disastrous from a monetary standpoint was the July 1929 Mill Valley fire. It burned 1,000 acres and destroyed 110 homes in Mill Valley. Damage was more than one million dollars.
Acquisition of Fire Equipment
Upon formation of the District, fire patrol was maintained on horseback. On May 1, 1921 this method of patrol was augmented by placing a man on the lookout at Mount Tamalpais whose sole duty was spotting and reporting fires. In the fire season of 1922 automobiles replaced the horsed for patrol work and carrying fire fighting equipment. The Automobiles were owned by District Fire Wardens who were reimbursed for mileage. In 1928, the first use of water in combating wildland fires in the Tamalpais Forest Fire District took place. This was the introduction of "back pack pump cans". This proved practical to such an extent that the District adopted them as part of their equipment.
In January, 1935 the first District fire truck was purchased. This was a one and one half ton International truck chassis. T.F.F.D. personnel constructed a fire fighting body at the Woodacre shops for their new vehicle. It carried equipment sufficient to supply 100 men with fire fighting tools, in addition to the pump, hose, and two hundred gallon water tank.
In the latter part of 1901, the San Francisco Examiner built a lookout station on the East peak of Mount Tamalpais. The purpose was to sight ships at sea approaching the entrance to San Francisco Bay and estimate their arrival time. It became a joint operation of the Examiner and the Tavern of Tamalpais and was a major tourist stop. The lookout paid jointly by the Examiner and the Railroad, directed the attention of the visitors to various points of interest and landmarks throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond. On a clear winter day, one could see the snowcapped Sierra Nevada Range.
On May 21, 1921 the first fire lookout employed by the Tamalpais Forest Fire District was stationed at the lookout for the 1921 fire season. From 1921 until 1931, this lookout station was maintained. In 1931, electricity was brought to the Tavern below, and extended to the Lookout.
In August 1935, through the cooperation of the Marin Municipal Water District, the Civilian Conservation Corps undertook the construction of a new fire lookout in place of the former Examiner structure which had fallen on hard times. The elevation of the floor of the lookout is 2,586 feet above sea level. This was one of many projects under way on Mt. Tam for several agencies. The new building was completed and placed in operation in July 1936. Later that year, a pump house of similar architecture was constructed to supply water pressure to the lookout building. Equipped with electricity, hot and cold running water, and telephone, this lookout was acclaimed "The Deluxe Lookout Station of California".
On April 11, 1938 a site for a second fire lookout station to augment the Mount Tam Lookout was chosen. The site was located on Mount Barnabe. Construction of a second lookout tower would allow the use of "triangulation" to determine the exact location of the "smoke" and allow observation of lands to the North that were not visible from the Mount Tam Lookout. The lookout tower was completed and placed in operation on June 6, 1939. In 1982 the original structure was torn down and replaced with a modern state of the art Lookout Tower.
Due to unresolved taxation disputes a new form of fire administration was necessary and so came to an end the Tamalpais Forest Fire District, May 21, 1917 – June 30, 1941 spawning the birth of the Marin County Fire Department.
Marin County Fire Department
The Marin County Fire Department came into existence on July 1, 1941 with passage of an ordinance and two resolutions by the Board of Supervisors. The instruments set up the County district, provides for financing the change, takes over all the equipment, and names the existing staff to handle the Department for the county. It would be established as a contract county fire department, that is, one of six counties in the state, in which the county elected to provide protection to areas normally, served by the State Forestry Agency. This allowed for some financial support from the state, but local control over the level of protection.
District Headquarters, was established in Woodacre on the abandoned Northwestern Pacific Railroad right of way. Shop and housing facilities were eventually constructed on the site. Not much change occurred until the late forties. With Headquarters and Dispatch Center located in Woodacre (the only formal station), the department began a program to replace its one man stations with geographically located stations recommended by the State Division of Forestry. Prior to this, each firefighter had worked out of his home and kept the fire truck there while on duty.
Department personnel constructed the first station in Point Reyes. Built by a private contractor in 1959, the next station was Throckmorton Ridge. This station was best situated to protect Mt. Tam. Stations were also built in Hicks Valley, Tomales, and Marin City. Eventually, all of the one-man stations were eliminated. The latter part of the forties also brought about new thinking concerning fire truck construction. No new equipment had been purchased since the Department was organized and some equipment was old and unreliable.
One at a time, several one-half ton, two and four-wheel drive chassis were purchased and "built-up" at Woodacre. Larger, they allowed more water, hose, and equipment to be carried. They were fitted with innovative high-pressure pumps capable of delivering forty gallons of water per minute at pressures as high as 800-pounds per square inch. These were highly specialized vehicles designed specifically for wildland firefighting and were superior to anything that had yet been developed in Marin.
A Caterpillar bulldozer and transport truck were purchased. This improved the ability of the department to combat large wildland fires. A road grader was also added to grade and maintain the growing network of nearly five-hundred miles of fire access roads on the Mountain and much of Marin’s ranchland.
Many new roads were constructed that allowed access to areas previously inaccessible and served double duty as fuel breaks as well. On Mt. Tam, the Hoo-Koo-E-Koo, Rock Springs-Lagunitas, Laurel Dell, and Rocky Ridge fire roads all helped to open the area to fire vehicles and hikers. The ability to construct fire roads brought a change in the fuel break concept for protection on the Mountain. The roads, in most cases, allowed a rapid response to the area and the fires to be extinguished while still relatively small. Maintenance of fuel breaks was labor intensive, costly, caused erosion, and was regarded by many as unsightly. Increased capability to contain fires, while small, provided the justification to discontinue maintenance of most fuel breaks. Today only a few remain.
By 1960, there were forty firefighters employed by the department. Among them, were a cook, a mechanic, a welder (who constructed the fire vehicles), two dispatchers, two fire lookouts, and 33 line firefighters.
Today, the Department has over eighty members. A new generation of firefighting vehicles replaced the aging fleet of the fifties, and in use are air tankers capable of dropping hundreds of gallons of fire retardant on difficult fires. Firefighters routinely provide first aid and rescue services to sick and injured citizens. A vigorous fire prevention campaign is maintained. What the future holds in terms of methods and thinking regarding wildfire on Mt. Tam is anyone’s guess. Whatever changes occur, most certainly they will be with the thought that man is more aware than ever of the beauty and value of the Great Mountain.