‘What a journey it’s been’: Lake Valley Fire celebrates 75 years
SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Lake Valley Fire Protection District gained national attention in 2021 as key players in protecting the Lake Tahoe Basin from the Caldor Fire. But they have 75 years of experience protecting their community that prepared them for that moment, long before one of the state’s largest wildfires crested Echo Summit.
Lake Valley Fire has been offering emergency services to the South Shore area of Lake Tahoe since 1947. Their first chief was Parvin Shaw and their first vehicle was a 1947 Mack Pumper, an engine that they still have today.
Shaw retired in 1960 and was succeeded by Edward Fisher, who was chief until July 1965.
When the city of South Lake Tahoe was incorporated in 1965, LVF split and opened Station 7, at 2211 Keetak Street, which is still being used today by the USDA Forest Service Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. It was at that time residents voted to make Lake Valley Fire a protection district.
After Fisher’s retirement, Assistant Chief Marvin Smiley served as interim chief until May 1966 when Chief Jack Holt stepped in. He became ill shortly after taking on the role and Chief Ralph Adams took over that role.
Adams helped expand the district quite a bit.
“Ralph Adams was pretty innovative, through government funding he hired five new guys,” said Bob Lopez, who worked as an engineer from 1973-1996, and was the 10th man on staff.
When Adams expanded the crew, they went to having 15 people in one small station.
“It was crowded but it was a lot of fun,” Lopez said.
In the mid-1970s, as Meyers continued to grow, Adams began construction on Station 6, also known as the Golden Bear Station.
That station was staffed by Lopez and just one other person. Lopez fondly remembers how lawless firefighting was at the time.
If there was a structure fire near them, those two guys would rush over to put it out before back-up came.
“It was a real competition, it was quite challenging and exciting,” Lopez said. “When I started, we were doing stuff as a fireman that probably wouldn’t be allowed today.”
Captain Steve LaClare was also a long-timer who remembers the early days of LVF. He started as a volunteer in 1968. He had just finished a four-year term in the Navy and when he came home, his brother’s father-in-law was assistant chief at the time and he encouraged him to volunteer.
He volunteered until 1971 when he was hired full-time, he was the seventh member of the team. He retired as captain in 2000.
“I fought many, many fires and responded to many, many medical calls,” LaClare said. “The fires were kind of fun because at the time 70-80% of our calls were for medical aid.”
Despite the fires being fun for him, one call that stood out the most was a medical call. It was a very snowy January around 1 a.m. and they got a call for a woman in labor at her home. At the time, LVF didn’t have an ambulance so the fire truck arrived at the home before the ambulance.
The woman was already well along in her labor and the fire department had just received childbirth training the month before, so they went to work delivering the baby.
It was a successful birth but the woman told them she was expecting twins. About thirty minutes later, the ambulance still hadn’t arrived and the second baby was on its way. That baby was coming out feet first and it was a difficult delivery.
“When that baby took its first breath, our hearts were full,” LaClare said.
Recently retired Chief Brad Zlendick started as a volunteer in 1989 and was hired full-time in 1993. The guys who worked there at the time called him Junior.
“He was just a kid when he started,” Lopez said.
It wasn’t until 1997 that LVF got another upgrade. That year, they opened a bigger station right next to the former Station 7. Zlendick said he remembers sleeping in the new station the first night and it was a completely different environment.
“We increased our staffing during that time too,” Zlendick said. “We used to have one person on Engine 7, we used to have one squad out of Station 7. It was very difficult to show up on a fire with just one person.”
They increased the staff to two on the engine, as well as volunteers.
In addition to station changes and staffing increases, technology has changed so much over the years.
Andrew Sessions, Fleet Manager at LVF said the engines are night and day from the original 1947 Mack Pumper.
“That had no heat, no creature comforts, guys riding on the tail-board outside in the snow,” Sessions said. “The object back then was just to get there.”
“It’s almost like going from a covered wagon to a spaceship, what they started with compared to what’s on the way,” Sessions continued.
Chief Brian Schafer took over in 2001 and Zlendick said technology changed a lot during his time.
“Chief Schafer, at the time, brought a lot to the district. He brought a type three fire engine, a water tender. We became more progressive in our fire department and got into the protection of our structures from wildland,” Zlendick said.
Sessions said the major change in equipment over the years is in the protection of the firefighters. From simple stuff like adding seat belts to bigger changes like exposure from toxins.
“Way before my time, firemen used to grow big beards and they’d wet their beards down and put them over their face as a kind of filter,” Sessions said.
LVF recently purchased a new water pumper and a new ladder truck, both of which are expected to arrive in Summer 2022. They will have filtration systems in the cabin to protect firefighters from smoke inhalation once they take their equipment off.
“All of our new rigs are designed around safety,” Sessions said. “Firefighters have a 61% risk of occupational cancer so whatever we can do to try to reduce that.”
The rigs are built to be stronger and tougher in case of rock slides or roll overs.
Another big difference Sessions said is in the environmental impact of the engines. Sessions believes that by the end of his career, the whole fleet will be electric.
“Nowadays, new stuff is showing up with reduced emissions from the tail pipes, a lot of idle shut-down controls so we can run the equipment less,” Sessions said.
The new vehicles will expand the ability of the district to respond to fires. The ladder truck has a hose attached to the ladder so firefighters don’t have to be on the ladder unless it’s a rescue. It also allows them to fight the fire from an aerial position which gives them a bigger advantage, especially since homes are being built bigger than they used to be.
The station also received another new type three engine or a wildland rig which arrived in the middle of the Caldor Fire. Sessions received the rig, set it up and immediately sent it into the field.
Prior to this new vehicle, the district hadn’t gotten a new type three engine since 2003 and the new one replaced a rig from 1996.
“It was greatly needed,” Sessions said.
That new equipment is part of the legacy Zlendick hopes to leave behind.
“We’ve been a progressive department that hasn’t sat back and been afraid of change,” Zlendick said. “There’s been a lot of chiefs and they’ve all been a different piece of the puzzle. My piece is that I had to buy a new apparatus. We were at a time that we needed to change and we did.”
“A lot has changed, I’m kind of becoming a dinosaur in the industry. I feel it but I sit back and I still smile and I look at the young people coming in, they’ve got a good career ahead of them. They are going to experience a lot but I hope that where I leave it with the apparatus and the equipment upgrades, maybe hopefully they’re prepared,” Zlendick added.
While the station does have a long history, one of its biggest fires was the Angora Fire in 2007. Zlendick remembers the district baseball team practicing on the fields when they saw the smoke. Their pagers all went off and they knew it was bad.
“It was really one of the first substantial fires the basin saw where structures were lost,” Zlendick said. More than 250 structures were lost.
“All of those homes essentially were gone in one afternoon. It was really an eye-opener and it forced a lot of change,” Zlendick said.
Cal Fire came back into the basin as a result of that and Zlendick said it changed the way all the agencies worked together.
They also upgraded their engines to be able to fight wildland fires instead of only focusing on structure fires.
While there were other fires, such as the Emerald and Gondola fires, it wasn’t until Caldor that the next big fire came through.
Zlendick said he was aggressive about preparing for the fire. Despite models showing that the fire wouldn’t reach the Basin, Zlendick didn’t trust the models and sent crews up to Echo Summit to prepare the homes.
There had also been a lot of prevention work in Christmas Valley that helped the firefighters be able to focus on putting out spot fires instead of focusing on the homes. As a result, no homes were lost.
“I give all the credit in the world to my chief staff and my senior staff to know what’s there, to carry the younger crews through,” Zlendick said.
Lopez said after watching Zlendick grow in his role, he was so proud of the way Zlendick handled that fire.
And Zlendick credits a lot of his success to the people who came before him, especially when he was just a volunteer who people called Junior.
“The core group that worked there at time took the time and had the patience to teach me and I’m just carrying the torch for them,” Zlendick said. “It’s the Lopezes and LaClares, it’s those guys that trust Junior to come.”
But while Zlendick had learned a lot from the past to prepare for Caldor, he also learned a lot from it.
“Everyone said this was a career fire, I don’t look at it as that. A career is not one thing, a career is years of building and the community,” Zlendick said. “There’s been a lot of things that have happened to our community that we’ve gotten through. That’s the career, it’s not one call.”
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