Santa Clara County Fire Department

Department History Overview

The Santa Clara County Fire Department is a full service fire department which has evolved through fire consolidations and contracts. In 1947, two agencies - the Cottage Grove Fire District and the Oakmead Farms Fire District - were consolidated to form the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District (now known as Santa Clara County Fire Department). This consolidation was the result of the California Division of Forestry withdrawing from the valley floor when its contract with Santa Clara County was terminated in 1947.

In that same year an election was held which authorized the Department to provide fire suppression services to the unincorporated area stretching from Highway 9 east across the valley to Mount Hamilton and south to the Almaden area.

In 1970, the Department consolidated with the Burbank Fire District and the Alma Fire District, and contracted with the Town of Los Gatos for fire protection services.

In 1977, the Department contracted with the cities of Campbell, Milpitas, San Jose, and Santa Clara to service portions of the Department referred to as "Zone 1". The City of San Jose provides fire services for a majority of the unincorporated areas in the eastern part of County Fire. Five fire stations and assigned personnel ultimately transferred to the city. The "Zone 2" designation remains as the primary service area for County Fire.

Prior to 1982, the Santa Clara County Fire Marshal's Office (FMO) operated as a stand-alone county agency. Following Proposition 13 the agency was eliminated and County Fire began its own Fire Prevention Division. In 1987, Chief Sporleder was appointed to the position of County Fire Marshal, and County Fire began providing fire marshal services to county facilities and unincorporated county areas.

In 1993, the City of Campbell, in 1995, the City of Morgan Hill, and in 1996 the City of Los Altos and the Los Altos Hills County Fire District contracted for fire services with the Department. Merging the Campbell, Morgan Hill and Los Altos personnel, facilities, and equipment into County Fire made the Department the second-largest fire agency in Santa Clara County. The department served Morgan Hill until the end of 2012.

Many changes in demographics and services provided have occurred since 1947. Personnel in County Fire provide fire protection services to one of the most diverse areas in the state. Challenges range from high rise buildings, downtown commercial areas, large retail malls, wildland-urban interface, hazardous materials and hi-tech systems, to large residential areas. Services have evolved to include fire protection, and education, hazardous materials response, and advanced life support.

In 1997, the Department adopted the "also-known-as" (a.k.a.) name of Santa Clara County Fire Department. The name was changed to more accurately reflect the area served and to avoid confusion between agencies with similar names in adjacent counties.

intersection 1956 intersection 2011
left: from the collection of Jim Ackley
right: Google Maps

Then and Now: Another example of how the valley has evolved since the inception of the department. Two views of the same intersection at Tully and King roads, looking east. The photo on the left was taken in 20 November 1956. The photo on the right was taken 2011. This intersection is now the first due area for San Jose station 16.

Department History

Prior to July 1947, only three entities provided fire suppression services to the unincorporated areas of the Santa Clara Valley. The largest of these was the California Division of Forestry.

Second was the Cottage Grove Fire District under Chief Orin McAbee which was located on Plum Street just off Alma Avenue, across from where the Department of Motor Vehicles is now. The third was a private fire department based at 321 West Reed Street, San Jose, run by John Hedberg, who manufactured fire apparatus and sirens. Donations of $50.00 and up were requested of the property owners for each fire.

Being primarily a watershed protection agency with limited capability in structural fire fighting, the Division of Forestry withdrew to the hills surrounding the valley when their contract terminated 1 Jul 1947.

With the pending termination of forestry services in view and with pressure from civic groups, notably the Cambrian Men's Club, Frank Coombs went to the Board of Supervisors and circulated a petition for signatures to get the establishment of Central Fire District on the ballot. The Board of Supervisors then approved an election to form a Fire District.

On 21 Jan 1947, and election was held creating the Central Fire District. Subsequently the County Board of Supervisors appointed a five man Board of Fire Commissioners to administer the affairs of the district, operating under the authority of the provisions contained in Division 12, Part 3, Chapter 2, Section 14400 of the California Health and Safety Code.

In December of 1947, actual operations began with Chief Henry Lingua and two men, James Ackley and Clyde Burroughs. One station was placed into operation - the "East Side Station", located at a dehydrator on the corner of Capital and Alum Rock Avenue. This covered the county's unincorporated area of some 400 square miles, and the Milpitas area until they withdrew on 1 Jan 1948, to form their own Milpitas Fire District.

The Chief's office was in the old County Court House Building on First and St. James Streets. Then in late December 1947, a general realignment of personnel was made with two Assistant Chiefs appointed: Fred Luhring (A shift) and Ray Allan (B shift). In February, 1948 Ray Allan quit, and Hugh Turner was appointed to take his place.

Until permanent stations could be built, "emergency quarters" were set up at Frank Steindorf's dehydrator on San Jose-Los Gatos Road for the Campbell-Cambrian area; at Saratoga Garage, for Saratoga-Los Gatos; at the Prune & Apricot Growers west side dehydrator for Cupertino, and in the former Cottage Grove Volunteer Fire Department Headquarters. The latter station provided protection for the critical industrial district south of San Jose. A temporary station was also located in the east side dehydrator at Alum Rock and Capitol Aves.

During the first part of 1948, the West Side Station was placed into service. This was a trailer at a dehydrator shed on the corner of Wolfe Road and Fremont Avenue. After a short stay at that location due to the need for space by the owner of the dehydrator, the station was moved to the Cupertino Grammar School on Stevens Creek Road and Vista Drive. Also in 1948 the department took over the Cottage Grove District, its equipment and personnel: Orin McAbee, Donald "Tippy" Sanfilippo, and Julius Frugoli.

It was about 1948 that some new stations were added:

"Alum Rock Station" located at a dehydrator in a trailer at Capitol Avenue just south of Alum Rock Avenue, then later moved to the Pala School, at Gay Avenue and White Road. The trailer was finally moved to Alum Rock Station's present location to await the completion of the present building.

"Cambrian Station" equipment was stationed at Frank Steindorf's dehydrator on San Jose/Los Gatos Road (now known as South Bascom Avenue), then moved into the existing station.

"Cupertino Station" was placed into operation with the equipment and personnel moved from the West Side Station into the new quarters.

"Quito Station" operated out of a trailer at a maintenance garage on the corner of Saratoga/ Los Gatos Road and Saratoga Avenue (behind where the present Saratoga Fire District Station is now) until the completion of the present station at Highway 9 at Austin Way.

Architects were engaged to draw up plans for the above four new fire houses. Through the cooperation of the Board of Supervisors, $50,000.00 of Chapter 20 (Statutes of 1946) State funds were made available for the Fire District's building program. These houses were completed in 1949 at a total cost of $107,000.00.

Back in 1948 the department had to haul all its own gasoline from the county yard at Washington and Poplar Streets in Santa Clara to the rigs, using six 5 gallon jeep cans in the back of a pick-up truck.

Early recruitment consisted of friends and brothers of current personnel, or anyone they could find who had experience driving a truck. Most of the recruitment occurred locally so that off-duty personnel could respond to major fires (a single firefighter on each rig was standard). Because the District covered a predominately rural area, many of the personnel were farmers and ranchers and their sons. As a result, Central Fire personnel became known by other fire departments in the area as the "County Cowboys." Due to the limited work force, the District relied heavily on volunteer firefighters. They were recruited from the immediate area in a similar manner to the paid force.

The District, like most fire departments of that time, was very well organized and politically active. District personnel were highly respected in the neighborhoods they served. People knew that the firefighters could be counted on in case of an emergency. For many of the farmers and ranchers in the area, the loss of a building and its contents, not to mention the loss of life, was a major setback to their small operation. Residents took their fire protection very seriously.

By 1949, permanent structures were completed for Alum Rock, Cambrian, Cupertino, and Quito Stations at a cost of $107,000. The Santa Clara County Fair Association donated property on Tully Road that would become the Tully Fire Station and the District Headquarters. Upon completion of Tully Station in 1950, the Cottage Grove Station closed and its equipment and personnel were moved to Tully with the addition of a new 1250gpm (gallon-per-minute) pumper. The Chief's office and Communications Department were moved in as well. At the same time, the Oakmead Fire Department merged with the Central Fire District. The station conducted operations from Oakmead Farms on the east side of what was then Lawrence Road. In 1951, both the Evergreen and Jefferson Stations opened (the latter on Monroe Street off Lawrence Road).

In 1949 the Santa Clara County Fair Association donated a piece of land on Tully Road on which to build the Headquarters Fire Station for the department administration offices and the Santa Clara County Communications Department. On the completion for this building in 1950, the Cottage Grove Station closed, and the equipment and personnel were moved into the new building along with a brand new 1250gpm pumper. The Chief's office and the Communications Department were moved from the old County Court House.

It was during this era that the image of the true "smoke-eater fireman" came into existence both locally and across the country. With advances in protective clothing and constant improvements in hose technology, firefighters were exposed to more heat and products of combustion than ever before. Respiratory protective systems of the day consisted of filters and a few self-contained breathing apparatus, but these were not widely used.

At Central Fire with just one firefighter on each piece of equipment and at least 230 square miles covered by 24 firefighters, plus as many volunteers as could be mustered at any given time, the job was monumental. Stories are told today of firefighters responding "Code Three" for 10-15 minutes to be first-in on a fully involved structure fire. At that time, the valley floor was covered with large apricot, cherry, prune, and almond orchards. The firefighters would speed along the two-lane roads that crisscrossed the area. Upon approaching an intersection, they would hunker down over the dashboard and peer beneath the trees to check for cross traffic. On arrival at the fire scene, they performed valiantly until the next-in rig arrived from half way across the County or enough volunteers showed up to quell the flames. In those days the District used 2000 gallon, truck-and-trailer water tankers for supply. These tankers had a 500gpm pump mounted on the rear step. The water tankers were surplus Army rigs, but they were very effective and a welcome sight to an engineer with a low water tank reading and no hydrant. Because there were no Captains at that time, the firefighter who was first on scene would take charge until the district Chief arrived. Needless to say, this didn't always provide the efficiencies of operation that we know today.

There are many fond memories of the District's first new piece of equipment - a 1949 Kenworth with a '50 Van Pelt build-up. It was powered by an 18-liter Hall-Scott in-line, six-cylinder engine and had a two-stage, 1250gpm pump. When first place in service at Tully station in 1950, it was the only 1250 gpm pumper between San Francisco and Los Angeles. With its bright red paint, open cab, and characteristic exhaust tone, it was the pride of Central Fire District! It is said that under certain circumstances the engine would emit a resounding backfire with a 2'x6' flame shooting out the exhaust pipe. This vintage fire engine, known today as Engine 20, still represents Central Fire in local parades and County Fire exhibitions.

These were spartan times for Central Fire marked by frugality and make-do conditions. During brush fire season, men like Jim Ackley, Ralph Caccamo, Del Coombs, Bob Olson Sr. and others would arrive at the station, go to separate fires, and not see each other until late in the evening. Stories are told of firefighters arriving on a grass fire and driving around it with the booster line in hand, before being called to yet another fire. Two shifts worked on day on and one day off. The only break in the pattern was an annual two-week vacation after a year of service. This, combined with low staffing and a grueling work load, was putting the lives of firefighters at risk. Unfortunately, the Board of Fire Commissioners was not willing to reduce hours, hire additional firefighters, or even properly supply the stations (most linens, flatware, etc. were hand-me-downs from the County jail). Because of the Board's inattention to the needs of the firefighters, it became necessary to follow the lead of industrial groups around the nation and organize as a union.

Central's next two stations were the Evergreen station and the Graystone station, Evergreen opening in late 1950, and Graystone in 1952. Graystone's operations began in a trailer behind Andy's Bar on Almaden Road north of McKean Road, then in November, 1955 the station was moved into a house on Grimley Lane.

1953 brought about the adoption of the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). October first of that same year the State of California Office of Civil Defense assigned to Central Fire District at no cost a 1000 GPM Class A pumper known as OCD 8. This has been replaced with the current Engine OCD 108.

Up until this time all rigs had one man assigned to them, but progress was made due to an injury.

A lone firefighter while taking a shower fell and seriously hurt himself, and was not discovered for many hours, so early in 1955 a great step forward was made with the implementation of two men assigned to each first call rig.

The first 16 Captains in Central Fire were appointed on 1 Jul 1955. The list included 14 line Captains for seven fire houses, plus Captain Curtis Kirby as Assistant Training Officer and Captain Willis Hall as Captain/Master Mechanic. Also appointed were three Battalion Chiefs: James Ackley, Hugh Turner and Ed Severns B/C Director of Training.

The personnel up until 1955 had been working one day on and one day off month after month, but then received a reduction in working hours from an 84 hour work week to a 72 hour work week (10 shifts on, 5 days off - 12 days on, 5 days off - 12 days on, 5 days off - 14 days on, 5 days off - then repeat the cycle).

In the spring of 1954, all 49 regular members of the District (with the exception of the Chief and Assistant Chief) voted to affiliate with the American Federation of Labor (AFL). Drill Master Orrin McAbee was the only officer to become part of the Local. On 1 June 1954, the firefighters received a charter from the AFL, and were recognized as Local 1165. The first elected president was Bill Deal, a firefighter from Quito Station. The San Jose News quoted Bill Deal as saying, "We are a non-striking Union interested only in [the] betterment of working conditions and the security of our jobs and our department." The earliest demands made by the Union were a reduction in the hourly workweek from 84 to 67.5 hours, a $50 per month pay increase, three weeks vacation per year, holiday pay and a cumulative sick leave policy. Shortly after these demands were presented, Bill Deal was suspended without pay by Chief Lingua, reportedly for a rules violation. The Chief did not divulge the nature of the violation to Deal until a hearing scheduled before the County Board of Supervisors. It was there that Deal and Union attorney John Throne learned that the suspension resulted from Deal's failure to inform the Chief about his organizing activities. In addition, Deal was charged with making an untrue statement about County Supervisor Sam Della Maggiore and attempting to organize a blood donor program without first consulting the Chief. Deal felt that these charges were in retaliation for his Union activities, although the Chief disagreed. There was a rule at that time that no effort to organize any activity would be undertaken without permission of the Chief. Attorney Thorne argued that this rule was unconstitutional when applied to the formation of a Union under state and federal labor laws. In addition to Deal's suspension, Drill Master Orrin McAbee was demoted to firefighter for unexplained reasons. These actions, among others, were hotly debated among the Union, the Board of Fire Commissioners and the County Supervisors, but Deal and McAbee were never reinstated to their original positions.

Harry McGinnis succeeded Deal as Union President. He continued the struggle for the next two years until he was forced to resign from the District under adverse circumstances. Willis (Willy) Hall, one of the first District employees to hold the rank of Captain, became the next president. During his tenure as president, he was demoted to shop mechanic for unspecified reasons. As a result of the demotion, he no longer qualified for safety retirement and was forced to work until the age of 60 before he was eligible to retire.

Through the years, presidents such as Mike Harrigan, Jack Salois, Hal Chase, Hal Hendrix and Dennis DeMelloPine have achieved significant gains in wages and benefits for the people who work in one of the most dangerous professions in the world. Their efforts and sacrifices, as well as those of their respective executive boards, should be applauded. In part, as a result of those efforts, the relationship between the Union and the Chief has improved dramatically. Both parties have worked together to provide the best possible benefits and working conditions for employees while adhering to strict budgetary controls in order to assure peak efficiency and an enviable reputation.

In 1955, the work schedule was reduced from an 84-hour workweek to a 72-hour week. No significant progress was made throughout the '50s in wages or benefits. It was at this time, however, that the first 16 promotions to Captain took place. These promotions also ushered in the advent of a minimum of two people per rig. The first three Battalion Chiefs were promoted - one per shift and one in charge of training. At this time the Central Fire District had 10 stations: Almaden (volunteer), Alum Rock, Cambrian, Cupertino, Evergreen, Graystone, Tully Road/HQ, Jefferson, San Tomas (volunteer) and Quito. The area covered much of what is now San Jose. Central Fire responded far into the present boundaries of Sunnyvale as well.

Throughout this period, more and more acreage was annexed into the surrounding cities. The assessed valuation of property remaining within Central Fire District rose steadily while home insurance rates fell due to improved fire protection and the decline of fires. Advances were being made in the area of fire prevention, with many new programs directed at home fire safety.

In 1961, two battalions were formed as a result of increased growth and responsibility within the County. On 1 Apr 1962 with Gordon Payne and Ralph Caccamo appointed as Battalion Chiefs, the department added three four-wheel drive vehicles to permit access to the hill areas for fighting grass fires.

1963 brought the retirement of Chief Lingua, and the appointment of Fred Luhring to Chief Engineer.

It was this same year that all rigs were assigned two men.

In 1964 the Jefferson Station was closed due to lack of activity after heavy annexations by the Cities of Sunnyvale and Santa Clara.

On 1 Jan 1965 the work week was once again reduced down to 67 hours (8 shifts on, 5 shifts off).

The pride and joy of the department, our West Valley Station was opened on 4 Nov 1965, and Battalion 1 base station was moved from the temporary quarters at the Cambrian Station to this new location.

In 1966 the Almaden Volunteer and the Graystone Stations were closed, and moved to new quarters in a house on the corner of Almaden Road and Mountain Drive.

Cupertino Station received a new snorkel truck in 1966. this piece of equipment was the first bonafide truck company of the Central Fire District. The station itself was remodeled, and plans were under way for a new station in the Monta Vista area. Santa Clara Valley experienced extraordinary growth during this period. The City of Cupertino was expanding rapidly with the completion of its Civic Center, DeAnza College, and Vallco Industrial Park. Obviously, the responsibility for fire protection also increased.

With development and industrialization of the valley came the necessity for training to increase firefighters' knowledge; thus began the era of the educated firefighter. More and more personnel sought a college education and an academic degree. Improved relations between the Union and the District administration indicated that safety issues were being addressed and wages/benefits were appropriate for the job being performed.

1 Jan 1968 also brought about a further reduction of the work week down to 65 hours (7 shifts on, 5 shifts off).

In 1969, a third platoon (shift) was added and the workweek was reduced to a 56-hour schedule. The County Board of Supervisors completed a report on fire protection in the county. It concluded that greater efficiency, as well as a reduction in taxes, could be achieved by a merge of Central Fire District with Alma Fire District, Burbank Fire District, and the Los Gatos Fire Department. The merger occurred in 1970.

The first Associate of Arts degree in Fire Science ever issued by San Jose City College was presented to Captain James Rosbrook in 1967.

Due to the ever increasing valuation in the Cupertino/Monta Vista area, and the recommendation of the Pacific Rating Bureau, a second station, the "Monta Vista Station" was opened at Stevens Creek Blvd. and Prado Vista Drive in May of 1967.

Bay Area Air Pollution District took over burning permits in the valley with total elimination of backyard burning effective 1 Jan 1970.

The three platoon system was inaugurated 1 Feb 1969 along with the ultimate in working hours, - the 56 hour work week (1 on, 1 off - 1 on, 1 off, 1 on, 4 off, then repeat).

Up until this time, Central Fire sustained a steady loss of land to surrounding cities through annexations, however at the same time there was a steady increase in valuation. This loss of land was reversed with the consolidation of the Los Gatos Fire Department and the town of Los Gatos on 1 May 1970. At the same time a third battalion was created with the three Los Gatos Stations and Quito Station. Then on July 1, 1970 Alma Fire District and Burbank Fire District were merged into Central Fire through consolidation, with Alma Station in Battalion 3 and Burbank Station in Battalion 2.

One month later, Burbank Fire Department, which was entirely supported by the local community, merged with Central. Burbank, which was all volunteer until just before the merger, was underwritten by community fund-raising events. Burbank residents felt a particular sense of pride in the beautiful equipment they had purchased, as well as in the department itself.

It is also important to recognize the efforts of the Ladies Auxiliary of Santa Clara County. Since its inception in 1950, the Ladies Auxiliary of Local 1165 made significant contributions in the area of public relations, fund-raising for charities, and family social events. It was a politically active group with a mission statement to "...assist in the endeavors of the I.A.F.F. and Local 1165 to improve social, civic and economic welfare of the firefighters and auxiliary." We are most appreciative of its efforts over the years.

In March of 1971, the equipment from Alma Station was moved to Redwood Estates and was housed in a trailer until the permanent station was completed on Madrone Drive in 1979.

On the rainy Christmas Eve of 1971, a fire at Alma College, located on Black road high in the Santa Cruz Mountains, consumed almost the entire school. The lack of a domestic water supply made it necessary for the fire engines to draft water from the pond that was on the property to supply the many hose streams that were put into operation. The fire was later determined to have been started in a dormitory. Fortunately, no students were present, and there was no loss of life.

The history of Central Fire is full of newspaper articles of huge fires that occurred at the many fruit dehydrators, canneries, and lumberyards that were common to the area at the time. Stories are told of personnel and equipment being on the scene of these incidents for days. One engine pumped for so long that the tires left their imprint in the pavement.

With improved fire protection came more efficient utilization of resources and a reduction in duplication of services. The District held a contest to adopt a new logo that would be specific to the fire service rather than patterned after the County seal. Volunteer Firefighter Rick James submitted the winning entry, which is still in place today. With the addition of Los Gatos, Shannon, Redwood, Winchester, and Burbank, Central Fire District now had 14 stations and three battalions. Chief Fred Luhring retired and was succeeded by Curtis Kirby as Chief Engineer.

With Chief Fred Luhring retirement on 2 Aug 1970, a major realignment of personnel occurred with Curtis Kirby appointed as Chief Engineer, Gordon Payne to Deputy Chief, and Assistant Chiefs: John Cornelius, Fire Protection Division; Ralph Caccamo, Director of Training; and Dick Wall (former Chief of Los Gatos), Planning and Research Division.

Due to the incoming consolidated areas, and lack of representation for these areas, on November 24, 1970 the Board of Fire Commissioners was increased from five to seven members.

Due to lack of personnel in the Fire Marshal's Office, mercantile inspections were badly neglected, so in February 1971 Engine Companies in cooperation with the Fire Marshal's Office took over inspections for fire and safety hazards on E, F, G, H, and J occupancies.

In March, 1971 the equipment was moved from its temporary quarters at the Alma Forestry Station and relocated at the "Redwood Station" in an apparatus room and a trailer on Madrone Drive at Redwood Estates in the Santa Cruz mountains.

13 Mar 1972 manpower was increased to three men on most first call rigs.

In February, 1974 Burbank Station was forced out of its location so that the Burbank School could have the land back for its own expansion, so a house was purchased on the corner of Scott Street and Flagg Road, and the station was relocated there.

21 Oct 1974 the Evergreen Station was closed with the City of San Jose taking over the fire protection in the area on an Auto-Aid basis.

An expensive but worthwhile expenditure, - Five thousand dollars each, - was made in March of 1975 when three Hurst Tools (Jaws of Life) were placed into service for rescues. They went into service on Truck 1, Cupertino; Engine 3, Los Gatos; and Engine 4, Redwood Station.

Through the years there has been a constant increase of personnel, with the resulting increase in needed office space to the point that the department outgrew the Headquarters Station. On April 14, 1975 the administrative offices were relocated at 3071 Driftwood Drive in the City of Campbell, a building that now houses the department's union.

In October of 1974, the Evergreen Station was closed with San Jose Fire Department providing fire protection to that area. The early-to-mid '70s was a busy time. The District had three battalions, 13 stations, and nearly 200 employees. The area covered stretched from Cupertino to East San Jose to New Almaden. In April of 1975, the District office was moved from Tully Station to a new building at 3071 Driftwood Drive in the City of San Jose.

Gordon C. Payne assumed the rank of Chief Engineer of Central Fire District upon the retirement of Curtis Kirby in October of 1975. During this time there was exploration of methods to improve fire protection to the east side of the District. Several options were considered. Ultimately, the City of San Jose annexed five station. On September 4, 1977, the stations annexed included Cambrian, Tully, Alum Rock, Burbank and Almaden. Seventy employees made the move to San Jose Fire Department. The annexation was supported by both departments with the understanding that better service could be provided at a reduced tax rate.

In 1978, Central Fire completed the transition to a new style fire helmet which served until 2012 for paid personnel, and is still in use by the Volunteers and recruits. This helmet holds a traditional shape and continues to provide good impact protection.

In 1982, it was determined that hazardous chemical materials were leaking from some of the industrial facilities in the area. These chemicals were the cause of some health problems within the County. A committee of both public and private agencies was assembled to try to find a solution to the problem. This committee worked for about a year and a half to generate the Model Ordinance for Hazardous Material Storage. Once this ordinance was adopted, the State of California Office of Emergency Services provided a hazardous materials unit to Central Fire District, to respond to Hazmat calls within the County. On 26 September 1984, Hazmat 1 went into service, and responded from the Quito Fire Station. In May of 1989, the District purchased and staffed a modern and larger unit (known as Hazmat 2) that is still in service today.

On 1 March 1982, Douglas Sporleder assumed the duties of Chief Engineer for Central Fire District after serving as acting Chief for more than a year. In 1982 the department also saw its first full-time, paid female firefighter, Teresa Meisenbach, née Pisano. It was also the first time that Emergency Medical Technician ("EMT") training was part of the fire academy.

On Sunday, 7 July 1985, the Lexington Fire, initially reported as a vehicle fire on Lexington Dam, was called in by the Brush Patrol 3, the first unit on scene, to be a "working brush fire" on Alma Bridge Road near Soda Springs Road. The companies stretched hose lines up both sides of the fire in an effort to control the blaze. But, because of the the terrain, wind and high temperatures, the fire was soon out of control. There was concern in the early hours of the fire that it would blown north through the canyon and into downtown Los Gatos, but this disaster was averted. The Lexington Fire continued to burn in a southeasterly direction despite all efforts to halt its progress. Throughout the next week, local firefighters and those from around the state battled night and day to control the blaze that consumed 14,000 acres, 42 homes, and caused the evacuation of 4500 people and approximately $7 million in damage. After days of hard work, little rest, and constant danger to personnel, the fire was stopped at Loma Prieta Road off Summit Road. Fortunately, there was no loss of human life.

Another major tragedy struck Los Gatos at 5:04pm on 17 October 1989. It came in the form of an earthquake measuring 7.1 on the Richter Scale. The Loma Prieta Earthquake shook most of Northern California along the San Andreas fault from Hollister to San Francisco. The force of the quake toppled buildings in Los Gatos and around the bay area. Bridges collapsed, propane tanks rolled off their pedestals, a wide fissure split Summit Road near Old Santa Cruz Highway, and power and water service were interrupted. Many of the toppled buildings caught fire soon afterward due to ruptured gas mains and other factors. These fires kept the District busy for the next week or so because many were in remote areas of Los Gatos when all water service, including fire hydrants, was knocked out. This forced the firefighters to shuttle water to the fires in water tenders. A great sense of community was felt as the town banded together to assist those devastated by the disaster.

The early 1990s continued to bring change to the District. On 11 March 1991, Central Fire purchased and occupied a new administrative Headquarters facility at 14700 Winchester Boulevard in Los Gatos.

In an effort to further reduce response times, a Computer Assisted Dispatch System was implemented with the efforts of Operations Captain Doug Allen. This modern communications system was brought on-line in August of 1991 and changed the way Central personnel answered calls. Previously, a hand written message was taken from radio traffic. Today a computer print-out is generated and there is no return radio traffic until the unit is responding. All mobile and portable radios were upgraded to improve communications. This improvement allowed for more channels; thus providing better fire scene management.

Seven Springs Fire Station, near the corner of Stelling and Prospect Roads in Cupertino, celebrated its opening on 10 August 1992. This station served the south-central parts of Cupertino and northern Saratoga. It also houses the District's Hazardous Materials unit. In 1993, the District celebrated a landmark year with the merger of Campbell Fire Department which added the City of Campbell, two stations and 33 personnel to the ranks of Central Fire. The merger was implemented on July 1 and, with the addition of Campbell and Sunnyoaks Stations, brought the total stations to eleven. As a result of the merger, the District has the distinction of being the second-largest fire department in Santa Clara County.

In 1996 the department contracted with the cities of Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, and Morgan Hill, bringing the total number of stations to 16. The department decided to change it's name to the Santa Clara County Fire Department to reflect the changes it had gone through since initially being established.

On the afternoon of Friday, 7 August 1997, at 3:53pm, a brush fire was reported on California Highway 17 to the rear of the "Cats Restaurant" in the town of Los Gatos, just outside of the downtown area. The first company to arrive on scene found the fire much closer to the downtown area of Los Gatos than was first expected. The initial size-up described a half-acre brush fire in steep terrain with a moderate spread rate, and a progressive hose lay was started at an anchor point near the origin. The first Chief officer on the scene assumed command and made a request for two strike teams for structure protection. Within 15 minutes of arrival, the incident commander requested two additional strike teams, two air tankers, and administrative overhead assistance to fill Command and General Staff positions.

The fire was contained at 8:36pm after destroying three homes and damaging four others, including a condominium complex. Six air tankers, Six helicopters, 65 engines, four water tenders, three hand crews, and 3 bulldozers were used and/or dispatched to the incident. The fire was determined to have started by molten metal falling into the grass from a power pole near highway 17. The "Cats Fire", while a relatively small fire in acreage, had presented a number of challenges including the proximity to the downtown area, numerous million-dollar homes, and a residential care facility for the elderly that was located within a few hundred yards of the incident.

The department's website was started in 1999 by volunteer firefighter Arleigh Movitz.

When Chief Sporleder retired in 2001, he was succeeded by Benjamin F. Lopes III, who was appointed in May, 2002. Lopes was in turn succeeded by Kenneth L. Waldvogel in July 2006. In 2011, Kenneth R. Kehmna became the department's eighth Chief.

The Santa Clara County Fire Department has experienced tremendous change in its proud and colorful existence with advances being achieved in areas of fire prevention, public education, fire suppression, and equal opportunity. The department is comprised of the blending and melding of many different people with a variety of backgrounds, all making their own contributions to enable the department to be one of the best fire departments in the state. County Fire has been, and will continue to be, a progressive and dynamic organization which provides the highest quality service to the people of Santa Clara County.

In 2008, County Fire merged with the Saratoga Fire Department, creating a contiguous area of coverage from south of Los Gatos to Los Altos.

In 2012 the department changed helmets again, this time to one with a more traditional style. When the contract for coverage for Morgan Hill expired at the end of the year, coverage for that city became the responsibility of CalFire. County Fire entered 2013 with 15 stations.

After agreement between the Chiefs of all of the fire departments within Santa Clara County, on 30 January 2014 all of the department's apparatus were renumbered to have a unique designator within the county. No longer could there potentially be two Engine 1's at a mutual aid call, nor would dispatchers have to specify the department of a unit they were communicating with. For specifics, see the Apparatus page.

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