Oak Park Station : Firefighters Look to New Horizons

Times Staff Writer

The most excitement that firefighters at Ventura County's newest fire station have had occurred a month ago--on the day the station opened for business and they drove their truck into Los Angeles County to buy their first firehouse groceries at a supermarket.

"While we were in Ralphs a little boy got his hand caught in a candy machine," Capt. Bill Hartley said. "The cashier noticed us down the aisle, shopping, and called us over. His hand was really caught up in there. But we got him loose without any trouble."

Very Few Fires

That the boy's predicament still ranks as a memorable moment for the firefighters illustrates the problem at the new $380,000 Fire Station 36, which will be dedicated at 3 p.m. today. It is situated 10 miles west of the San Fernando Valley in the isolated Ventura County residential community of Oak Park. There's very little trouble in those parts.

There are very few fires, either. Since the station's bright yellow fire truck was put in service Feb. 23, there has been only one fire in the 1,500-house community. That was in a clothes-dryer motor in a nearby home, and it burned itself out before the three-man fire crew arrived.

Oak Park lies in a valley at the northern end of Kanan Road, separated from neighboring Agoura Hills only by the imaginary line that divides Ventura and Los Angeles counties. Because of the rugged surrounding hills, Oak Park can be reached only through Los Angeles County.

For 15 years, Ventura County fire trucks have been dispatched to Oak Park emergencies from Thousand Oaks, about eight miles away. It took the trucks about 12 minutes to travel that distance, however, so closer Los Angeles County firefighters routinely handled Oak Park emergencies under a mutual-aid agreement.

As prospects shapes up to be pretty dull for Oak Park's nine firefighters, Hartley said Friday that Station 36's new crew is anxious to start returning the favor by helping put out fires in Los Angeles County's Agoura Hills area.

Monitor L.A. County Calls

In fact, the Oak Park firemen have plugged in a radio that tunes in Los Angeles County fire calls. They say they plan to jump into their own fire truck as soon as they hear Los Angeles County firemen being dispatched to anything that sounds like a big fire.

"We'll self-dispatch ourselves," Hartley said. "We're up here on a hill, and we'll have pretty much of a straight shot into Agoura Hills. We should be the 'first in' for a lot of fires."

That news prompted good-natured groans and cries of "poaching" Friday afternoon from Los Angeles County fire officials. Their Fire Station 65, situated south of the Ventura Freeway, 2 1/2 miles from Oak Park, handles about 850 calls a year.

Los Angeles County Assistant Fire Chief David Hanson, who oversees the county's western area, said that there is a natural rivalry among fire crews. "If you can get in and lay down a line and start working a fire before the guys from the local jurisdiction can get in, it's something," he said. For the local fire crew that is beat to the scene, "It's a long time before they live it down," he said.

Reconsidering Plans

Said Capt. Dick Baker of Station 65: "Ventura County has competent firemen. They can be in charge at my fire--until I get there."

Hanson said the opening of the Oak Park station will require Los Angeles County officials to reconsider their own plans to build a new firehouse closer to the Agoura Hills residential area. There have long been plans to replace the 51-year-old Station 65 with something newer and more centrally located.

"It's true that Oak Park is a pretty quiet community," said Ventura County Fire Battalion Chief Jim Smith. "But we feel Station 36 will be one of our most active stations in working with Los Angeles County. We think they'll be busy."

In their first month at the tile-topped station at 855 N. Deerhill Road, Station 36 firefighters have kept busy--but by doing such chores as installing lawn sprinklers and sod, and building racks for their uniform coats and hose-storage shelves. The station still lacks heating, but a professional contractor will install that.

Gifts Pouring In

The new station's firemen have received gifts of cookies, cakes, a color television set, a microwave oven and weight-training equipment from homeowners and others since they moved in.

"We're really excited about them being here, " said Charles Monico, vice chairman of the homeowners' Oak Park Municipal Advisory Council. "They'd told us we wouldn't qualify for a fire station until we had 2,000 homes, but we've gotten one a little sooner."

Firefighters said they have hurried to get the station ready for this afternoon's ribbon-cutting as a courtesy to retiring Ventura County Fire Chief Stan Masson. He will step down March 29 after a career that he began in 1945 as a volunteer fireman.

"Opening the station will be my last official act. I didn't want to miss it," Masson, 56, said Friday.

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