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Kindling Memories : Community Bids Farewell to 1944 Fire Station, Set to Be Torn Down

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The first truck out of Orange County Fire Station No. 20 was actually a used school bus with a portable pump set up in the aisle.

“The kids on their bikes could beat it up the hill easy most times,” Capt. Larry Kurtz said laughing.

Now, half a century later, the square adobe firehouse by the railroad tracks is going to be demolished to make way for one more swath of tract homes. But not without a proper farewell.

Surrounded by Orange, the unincorporated area of Olive, while not a city, is still a community. On Sunday, they showed up. With the smoke of 600 pounds of hot dogs in their eyes from the grill out back, about 400 Olive residents--three generations’ worth--recalled history, while a fourth generation scrambled over shiny red trucks, honking horns, and yanking hoses and anything else they could grasp in their fists.

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“A lot of us are amazed this building is still standing after all the earthquakes. We joke and call it a sand dune with a tile roof on it, but the ideals that made it transcend 50 years,” said Kurtz, who is one of 25 men currently staffing the firehouse as a paid call volunteer--that’s $7 per call, any time of day or night.

Kurtz said local store owner Dan Ames went door to door collecting $10 per family to raise the simple building from mud and dirt bricks in 1944, during World War II. On Sunday, Ames’ descendants filled folding chairs and spilled outside the fire station that protected seven-tenths of a square mile.

In a county of planned communities, freeways and anonymous malls, many agreed Sunday was an extraordinary afternoon. Up front, Jerry Maag and Bobbie Ritter laboriously unscrewed the heavy lid of a time capsule--a stout piece of hollow iron pipe, actually--and poured out the contents. When the capsule was put in the adobe wall during a ceremony five decades ago, Maag was an excited kindergartener in the crowd and Ritter was 18, watching from the side.

On Sunday, old newspapers tumbled out of the time capsule--headlines about Russia and Berlin; a steel-coated zinc penny from 1943; a tin badge with a note attached. There was also a list of the first volunteer firefighters to answer the call when Station No. 20 was raised half a century ago.

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Maag read off the names--captains, engineers, hydrant men, most dead, names from the long-gone orange and olive groves, the packinghouses and blacksmith shops.

“Truckman Fritz Guenther,” he said, reading down the list.

“That’s my dad!” exclaimed Richard Guenther. He pointed to the 86-year-old man seated comfortably in the front row, and the timbered rafters filled with applause for the former firefighter.

Through the years, the company responded to everything from kitchen blazes to car accidents. But everyone old enough to remember agreed: The worst ever was the Olive Market electrical fire right across from the station. There was disagreement on whether it was 1961 or 1967, but everyone remembered the flames that filled the sky, and the sound of gunpowder and bullets flying. The owner of MacClellan’s Hardware, adjacent to the market, was a gun collector, and every piece of his collection exploded into smithereens in the blaze.

“It was hell,” said former Fire Chief Maurice Ritter, 73, who married Bobbie Ritter years ago. “I was on the roof when it caved in. I used the hoses to climb up the wall and got out.”

“Those must’ve been strong hoses,” joked his wife, poking him in the stomach.

No one recalled women being in the fire department, but it was a part of their lives too. Helen Cudworth, 75, said her husband, George, slept with his boots by the bed for decades. “We didn’t have time to volunteer. We were too busy raising our families,” said Bonnie Hobbs, who also recalled making meals for station fund-raisers. “I made lots of hamburgers out of that old kitchen, though.”

She and others remembered Halloween carnivals, potluck suppers and dances that spilled out onto Lincoln Avenue from the little firehouse.

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“Oh, wonderful, wonderful, wonderful!” she sighed. “It’s so sad that it’s going.”

The old firehouse will be replaced by a new one that will be built 150 yards away. Beepers have replaced the air raid whistle, but a tradition of caring for neighbors will carry on.

Station Capt. Jim Nielsen, also an employee of Vons supermarket down the street, is proof. “Yes, that’s me, paper or plastic,” Nielsen said to the assembled crowd before introducing the current crop of 25 paid call volunteer firefighters. “These are your firefighters. This is your crew. We’re very proud to be a part of your community.”


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