Fires in Kentfield before 1921
By Paul Smith
There were several documented fire incidents in the Kentfield area prior to the District being formed in 1921. On the night of the Fourth of July 1905 a fire was reported at the saloon and dwelling of Joseph Escallier. The San Francisco Call newspaper reported that an impromptu fire department, consisting of residents and visitors, used buckets and tubs along with a garden hose, extinguished the fire. The fire was apparently caused by fireworks. After this incident the residents seriously considered forming a volunteer fire department and discussed it at the next meeting of the Kentfield Improvement Club. However, no decisive action was taken. It would still take another sixteen years and several more serious incidents before the residents voted to form the District.
On Saturday morning May 27, 1911 the Austin Cottage, on Laurel Grove, just across the Ross town line, was destroyed by fire. An alarm was set to the Ross Fire Department and Chief Green responded with his men. The Cottage was completely destroyed but the adjacent structures were spared. The loss was estimated at $1500.
Another fire on October 18th later that year, the Johnson Hotel was destroyed. This building was near the old Kentfield School House, where the Terrace Apartments stand today. Again, the Ross Fire Department was summoned. The Marin Journal reported that Ross’s “big auto engine” struggled over the rough roads to reach the scene. Due to the lack of hydrants and water pressure there was little they could be done. “The firemen used their chemicals and succeeded in saving the school house,” the article stated.
In those days liquid acid and bicarbonate soda containers were stored on some fire apparatus. Upon arrival at the fire scene these chemicals were added to the water tank and an almost instantaneous chemical reaction occurred. That chemical reaction created the necessary pressure in the tank to produce an effective fire stream through the 1-inch chemical hose, which was typically colored red, hence the term “redline.” Using this method, the Ross firemen successfully kept the fire from damaging the adjacent schoolhouse. These chemical lines evolved into modern era “booster lines” that were typically standard equipment on fire engines until recently.
On Christmas Eve 1913 a fire of unknown origin broke out at the Hart residence in Kentfield. According to the Marin County Tocsin, Mr. Hart had left his residence earlier that evening to assist with the search and apprehension of an escaped convict from San Quentin prison.
Mrs. Hart awoke about three in the morning to the smell and roar of the fire below her second story bedroom. She was unable to descend the stairs due to the heat and smoke and but was rescued when a ladder was placed to the bedroom window. The Ross Fire Department was called but due to a lack of a fire hydrant in the vicinity, the home was on destroyed.
On December 14, 1916 The Marin Journal reported that the Hoteling property, an old Marin Landmark in Kentfield, ”went up in smoke.” Again, Ross Fire Chief Green and 21 of his men responded. They had 1600 feet of hose but the closest fire hydrant lay more that 2000 feet away. Chief Green must have been extremely upset as he was heard to say, “We had to stand there like boobs,” as fire destroyed the entire structure. He recommended that fire hydrants be installed a maximum of 1000 feet apart on Laurel Grove, a county road.
In the early morning hours of June 5, 1919 fire destroyed a large ten room residence owned by Baldo Ivancovich at Kent Ave and Bridge Road. A call was sent to the Ross Fire Department and the fire was confined to the second floor. Faulty electric wiring was the reported cause. The building and contents were insured. This is the first fire in Kentfield where an insurance policy was reportedly in place. Additionally, it is interesting to note that this fire was caused by electricity, a relatively new addition to twentieth century homes. Several of the above referenced fires were reportedly due to faulty fireplace flues, not an uncommon source of heat in those days.
This segment, written to memorialize some of the significant structure fires in Kentfield prior to the formation of the Fire District, has a remarkable ending. In October 1921, just before the newly approved Kentfield Fire District was staffed and equipped, a fire broke out in a two story garage owned by J.G. Hecker. His property was in the vicinity of the Kent Estate but again, due to the absence of a hydrant, the building burned to the ground. The fire loss was estimated at $1000. Remarkably, Mr. Hecker had just been appointed as a Fire Commissioner of the newly sanctioned Kentfield Fire District.