Sacramento County Fire Districts, Explained: A History of Protection Dating to the 1940s, and Earlier

How the county protects residents from fire, from the Gold Rush to today.

PUBLISHED JAN 3, 2022 5:52 P.M.
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Sacramento County’s fire protection system dates back to 1850, but has come a long way since then.

Sacramento County’s fire protection system dates back to 1850, but has come a long way since then.   U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 3rd Class Loumania Stewart / Wikimedia Commons   Public Domain

The stretch of California land that would become Sacramento County was enjoying a peaceful existence as an agricultural settlement in the early half of the 19th century when the paradigm-shifting event that would alter the course of California history forever happened just a few miles away. That, of course, was the discovery of gold at a sawmill construction site in Coloma, in what is today neighboring El Dorado County.

The Gold Rush, beginning with that momentous discovery in 1848, pulled an estimated 300,000 new inhabitants to California in search of gold, or in search of the cash to be extracted from hopeful prospectors. Hastily erected towns and villages that were little more than glorified camp sites with “houses” thrown together from wood and canvas appeared all over the region. And perhaps unsurprisingly, those towns attracted a frequent but unwelcome visitor—fire.

In fact, fire struck so often that on Feb. 5, 1850, a group of Sacramento citizens created Mutual Hook and Ladder No. 1—the first volunteer fire department in the western United States (though California would not officially become a state for another eight months). In 1852, a massive blaze that came to be known as the Great Conflagration razed about 80 percent of the nascent city of Sacramento, damaging or destroying $6 million worth of property, or more than $215.5 million in 2021 dollars. But it took another 20 years until what started as that single fire company grew into the Sacramento Fire Department, the first fully professional firefighting agency in the west.

First Fire District Founded in 1921

Nonetheless, most firefighting in Sacramento County remained the work of volunteer citizens. Even when the county’s first fire protection district, the Galt FPD, was founded in 1921 its firefighters battled blazes on an unpaid basis. The district had an initial budget of just $1,000 (about $15,500 today), no fire station, and just one fire truck that was built by the volunteer firefighters themselves.

It wasn’t until 1946 that Galt FPD firefighters got paid. And then their wage was a grand total of $1 per call, no matter how long the call lasted or how difficult or dangerous a fire was to extinguish. It took another 15 years for the district to hire its first full-time, salaried employee: Chief August Pahl, a longtime Galt resident who owned a local shoe repair shop and also had served a city council member, school bus driver, and director of the local sanitary district.

The Galt FPD no longer exists. In 2006 it merged into the Elk Grove Community Services District to create the Consumes Community Services District, which provides not only fire protection but a range of public services such as police, water and waste disposal.

Today, 11 Fire Districts Protect County

Consumes CSD is counted as one of 11 fire protection districts that, along with municipal fire departments in Sacramento and Folsom—as well as the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, aka Cal Fire—cover the county. Folsom State Prison has its own fire department responsible for fire protection inside the correctional facility.

Nine of the fire-protection-only districts are considered “independent,” that is, governed by their own board of directors, elected by voters within the districts. Only the Natomas Fire Protection District comes under the direct jurisdiction of Sacramento County, whose board of supervisors doubles as the district’s directors. Founded in 1924, the Natomas district ranks as the oldest continuously existing fire district in Sacramento County.

Natomas, however, does not maintain its own fire department. Instead, since 1984, it contracts with the Sacramento Fire Department. The Pacific/Fruitridge Fire Protection District also relies on a contract with Sacramento FD for its services.

The Sacramento Fire Department is not to be confused with the Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District, which has been in existence since 2000 when the Sacramento County and American River Fire Protection districts consolidated into a single entity. But the district’s history goes back much further than that. The American River district itself was the result of mergers that involved seven different fire districts, and Sacramento County FPD arose out of consolidation of four previous districts.

Sacramento Metropolitan's borders begin where the city of Sacramento’s western limits end, and extends east to the Placer County line. Actually, the district dips slightly into Placer County, covering about 1.5 square miles in the neighboring county. The entire Sacramento Metropolitan FPD encompasses about 417 square miles, and includes the entire cities of Citrus Heights and Rancho Cordova.

Most Districts Formed in 1940s

The county’s remaining six fire protection districts all date to the 1940s, starting with the Courtland district in 1941, and Wilton district on Jan. 26, 1942. The most recent, continuously operating fire district is the tiny Walnut Grove FPD, which covers the unincorporated community of Walnut Grove with its population of just over 1,400, as well as largely agricultural, sparsely populated areas around the Delta region of the Sacramento River. The Walnut Grove FPD formed on Dec. 29, 1948.

Two more fire districts, Delta and River Delta, were founded in 1947, and then there’s Herald Fire Protection District, founded in 1946. Located in the southeast corner of Sacramento County, bordering on San Joaquin County, the Herald FPD holds the distinction of being the one of the few fire districts in the state whose territory covers a nuclear power plant. That distinction actually ended in 1989 when, for the first and only time, not only in the history of California but in the history of the world, citizens voted to close a nuclear power plant. Rancho Seco Nuclear Generation Plant was shut down by a Sacramento ballot initiative that passed by a 53-47 margin.

(Avila Beach Community Services District in San Luis Obispo County, which provides fire protection through its contract with Cal Fire, is the only fire district in the state with an active nuclear power plant.)

Herald District Faced Financial Scandal

The mostly volunteer Herald FPD started off with no equipment but a 1929 Standard Oil delivery truck that a local women’s civic group purchased and had converted to a fire truck. The Herald fire department covered the region in what appears to be a generally praiseworthy fashion—until 2012, when it was suddenly rocked by scandal.

A 2014 Sacramento County Civil Grand Jury report ripped the department and its fire chief for allegedly maintaining an undisclosed bank account, as well as various other financial and personnel issues. The grand jury even alleged that the fire chief viewed photos of “nude and scantily-clad women on his work computer” and emailed those images to another employee.

The grand jury called for an independent audit of the Herald FPD. That audit was delivered in 2017, and it found that the district was, in fact, using a bank account for transactions that were not reported in public records, and that more than $4,700 remained unaccounted for, among other financial discrepancies, according to a report by the Galt Herald newspaper.

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