Preserving the Legacy of Santa Ana’s Firefighters

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As of last week, the 128-year-old Santa Ana Fire Department has ceased to exist, marking the end of one of the oldest firefighting institutions in Orange County.

But the department’s history will remain alive and on display at the Santa Ana Fire Department Museum, a collection of photographs, murals and decades-old equipment that chronicles the department’s century-long evolution.

The museum is a downtown fire station at Walnut and Main streets housing the department’s relics. The centerpiece, a 1921 Seagrave fire engine, sits in the garage. Murals depicting legendary city firefighting scenes are emblazoned on walls between stairwells and in the station’s rooms.

But until recently even the museum’s future was in question because of the Santa Ana City Council’s decision to dismantle the fire department and turn fire services for the city of 324,000 to the Orange County Fire Authority.

To save the museum, the Santa Ana Historical Preservation Society is contracting with the Fire Authority to protect the collection.

“It is a joint venture to honor, remember and keep the history of the Santa Ana Fire Department for many years to come,” Fire Chief Dave Thomas told a crowd at a ceremony marking the merger with the Fire Authority.

Although the agreement isn’t yet final, Tim Rush, chairman of the museum transition committee for the preservation society, said it’s “98 percent” complete. “It’s a lot of t’s to cross and i’s to dot in a short period of time,” Rush said.

The first to step was taken by Tim Graber, retired firefighter and preservation society member.

“I went to them and said, would you please preserve these goods,” Graber said. “I for one can’t tolerate the concept of what we have protected there for years and built in there for years to be scattered throughout the county.”

Graber said he started the museum in the late 1980s after he found some old equipment at the fire station. He has been the “background manager” since then.

The fire museum is a place where the past and present merge. The Seagrave sits in the same garage as modern fire engines. Working firefighters walk past decades-old uniforms displayed on the wall. A 1950s era Atlas life net, which served as the landing for people jumping out of burning buildings, rests in the basement.

Fire Engineer Lou Fernandez, the museum’s curator, set up the museum and painted the murals. Fernandez knows the history behind every piece and every photograph.

The station itself is historic, Fernandez says. Constructed in the 1950s amid a countrywide fear of atomic war with the Soviet Union, the station was built with a civil defense shelter for the city government in the event of a disaster. Today the shelter is known as the “house of pain,” an exercise room and training ground for rookie firefighters, Fernandez said.

Hugging the wall up one stairwell is a 1983 plaque recognizing the fire department’s “class one” rating from the Insurance Services Office. The office, which rates fire departments for insurance companies, had at the time only given the rating to three other departments in the nation, according to Fernandez.

The transition to the Fire Authority, a result of the city’s budget crisis, means that Santa Ana will likely lose the top rating because of a reduction in staffing and level of service.

Other photographs illustrate a simpler time for the city. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the department relied more on horses for transportation. One photograph shows Deck and Dan, two of the most beloved horses at the time. The horses were sold to France during World War I and died on the voyage there during a torpedo attack by a German PT boat, according to Fernandez.

Such history is what Fernandez and Graber want to preserve.

“We just wanted to make sure there were no questions and it would stay here,” Fernandez said.

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek.

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