Costa Mesa's first fire truck

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Prior to 1925, Costa Mesa had no organized fire protection. After a fire, the local newspaper simply reported what property was lost and whether or not it was insured. It was generally assumed that if you were unfortunate to have a fire, you would lose everything you owned. 
 Finally, in 1924 the local residents had had enough. Together with the Chamber of Commerce, they raised money for the purchase of a fire truck and the formation of a volunteer fire department. Fred Brush was their first Chief.

CM Historical 
Costa Mesa’s first rig was an American LaFrance. It was built from a kit designed to fit on any available commercial truck. The truck was not a pumper but a “chemical wagon” equipped with two 35-gallon water tanks and various other equipment that the volunteers could obtain.

In the late 1800’s, fire department “pumpers” were steam powered, just like the CSFA steamer. While very effective (comparable to a modern pumper), they were big, expensive and required a highly trained crew to operate. Smaller departments needed an alternative that was inexpensive and simple to use. In 1872, the Chicago Fire Department mounted a large soda-acid extinguisher on a hose wagon and the “chemical company” was born.

Chemical wagons were very simple to use; the engineer simply rotated the bottles dumping a bottle of hydrochloric acid into a solution of water and baking soda. The resultant carbon dioxide gas forced the water out of the container, creating a fire stream. Chemical wagons were highly effective and extinguished approximately 80% of the nation’s fires for the next thirty years.

Costa Mesa’s rig fought its first fire in September of 1926, saving the building. Despite the success, it was obvious that the truck had a number of disadvantages. Soda-acid systems were messy and once the water had been expelled, there was no quick way to refill the tanks. Under extreme conditions, the tanks or hose could explode if over-pressurized. To make matters worse, the second-hand rig was mechanically unreliable. According to Assistant Chief Emil Greener, “it was an obstinate piece of machinery, balking for any reason whatsoever, usually in the center of Newport Boulevard”.

The Chamber of Commerce paid $1,200 (over $13,000 in today’s money) for Costa Mesa’s first fire apparatus, a lot of money for an obsolete and unreliable rig. It’s possible the purchasing committee was fooled by the popular (and false) belief that “chemical water” was more effective than plain water. Regardless, by the 1920’s, the chemical wagons days were numbered. There was nothing they could do that modern fire “engines”, equipped with pumps and booster-tanks, couldn’t do much better.

Shortly after the above photo was taken, the fire truck suffered additional breakdowns. Even when it was able to respond, its 70 gallons of water was inadequate for all but the smallest fires. It would respond to its last fire on January 4th, 1933 driven by Chief Charlie Lewis, the only remaining Costa Mesa Fireman. From that time until March 1st, 1936 when the county provided a new one, Costa Mesa again had no fire truck whatsoever. After delivery on the new truck, the Costa Mesa Chamber of Commerce donated the truck to the County of Orange, who repaired it before sending it to serve in Midway City.
(Thanks to FF/PM Rich Merritt for restoring the only known photograph of CMFD’s first fire truck)