Community Guardians

Brian WilkinsonAugust 30, 2012 

June 23, 1972, marked an historic day for the then 75 year-round residents of Cedar Valley north of Oakhurst, as the community's first shinny red fire truck was delivered and parked on an empty lot owned by Lowell Alexander. The 20-year-old truck was delivered from the Mariposa station of the California Department of Forestry (now referred to as Cal Fire) by Darrell Woods and Jim Johnson and John Willis from the United States Forest Service.

The truck arrived at 10 a.m. but had to be returned to Mariposa to have a small leak in the gas tank repaired. When the truck returned at 4 p.m. 10 men were waiting to be trained on the basic operation of the fire engine.

That first group of volunteers included Hank Davis, Leo Williams, Bruce Cheezeman, Dave Cheezeman, Jim Newsome, O.B. Moore, Marvin Locke, Lowell Alexander, Bryce Smith and George Tolladay.

All 10 men and the community went to sleep content that night, knowing the community was safer than it was the day before.

Two months prior to the fire truck delivery, letters were sent to all Cedar Valley property owners inviting them to a May 29 meeting to discuss the idea of the fire department and to gather support for the idea. George Stillman agreed to chair the meeting. Stillman, along with neighbors Alexander, Ed Gonsalves and Bob Tees made up the committee. With no dissenters, all 26 residents attending the meeting urged the committee to proceed with the formation of the volunteer fire department.

Cooperating in the formation of the department was CDF Chief Tom Perkins and USFS Chief Reid Marks. Marks advised that Cedar Valley was under USFS jurisdiction, but that through an agreement, CDF would also respond to any fire. Perkins set the guidelines that Madera County had as far as membership and training. He also made the arrangements for that first engine.

In July of that year, the Cedar Valley Volunteer Fire Department was formed and Alexander was elected first Fire Chief.

Both Marks and Perkins offered training programs to the volunteers, although 40 years ago training was minimal compared to the 90 hours of training volunteer firefighters are required to have today.

"There was no formal training 40 years ago," Stillman said. "They started out by learning how to start the engine and how to pump water."

The winter of 1972, volunteers were trying to find housing for the fire truck and to keep the water and pumps from freezing.

"The need for a fire station was a most pressing problem 40 years ago," Stillman said.

The Cedar Valley Mutual Water Company saved the day by offering to lease the department a corner of the recreation lot for a fire station at a cost of $1 per year.

The Madera County Board of Supervisors was contacted and the board agreed to waive all building permit and re-zoning fees. A station plan was borrowed from Raymond and the necessary changes made to fit the minimum needs of Cedar Valley -- a 24 X 34-foot garage for the truck.

Les and Bob Tees and Virgil Shipp donated most of the material for the framing. They were also responsible for the grading and concrete work. Johnnie Sanchez came from his job in Coalinga to do the finish work on the concrete. Ross Salyer came up with the windows, Lyle Berg donated the doors, Limpy Marrazzo donated roofing material and Al Bardini contributed electrical material.

The rest of the materials were donated by residents and property owners of Cedar Valley. More than 2,000 man hours were volunteered in building the station.

Close to 30 volunteers joined the department, and training and drills took place on Saturdays after everyone worked on building the station.

The station added a patrol truck with small water tank and a 1,500 gallon water tender in the early 80s, later upgraded with a 2,000 gallon water tender. An addition to the station was added for the water tender and later restrooms were added.

During the station construction, the Cedar Valley Fire Auxiliary was formed and held two spaghetti dinners and two pancake breakfasts to raise building funds. The spaghetti dinners went on for 10 years before the auxiliary switched to the now-famous Deep Pit BBQ -- this year's event is Saturday at the station. Members of the auxiliary, led by president Eldine Stillman, will help with food preparation, cooking and clean-up.

"We have the best auxiliary in the county," boasted firefighter Gary Williams. "This station would not be here today if it was not for all the hard fundraising work they do for us."

The first year of operation, from July 1972 to July, 1973, there was a single fire call with no property loss.

The past 10 years, the department has averaged 160 calls a year, with about 70% of the calls being for medical aid. And it's done with a six-man "paid call" department including Fire Cpt. Jerry Collins and firefighters Williams, Charlie Clark, Jim Greer, Bryant Bowman and Caleb Ollis-Cartmell.

Today, there are about 130 homes in Cedar Valley and a year-round population estimated between 250 and 300 nestled on property surrounded by the Sierra National Forest.

Coverage of the station is from the Madera County line (and Fish Camp on mutual aid requests) to the north, south on Highway 41 to the old Snowline Restaurant, east to Dorstan Drive on Bass Lake Road (220) and west on Road 620 to Miami Creek.

Over 40 years, the department has served the community of Cedar Valley and beyond saving numerous homes from being totally destroyed by fire and assisting people in car accidents and with medical emergencies.

Williams, who joined the department in 1987 and who's father, Leo, was was one of the original Cedar Valley volunteer firefighters, said the department is always looking for people in the community to join the department.

"Forty years ago we would have never thought this station would turn into the department it is today with the updated equipment, well trained personnel and the great community support we have," Stillman said. "It's very gratifying."

Details: Cedar Valley Volunteer Fire Department, Station 18, (559) 683-0600

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