Local History – September 2009

Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Local History” September 2009.

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Fighting Fires
By Paula Amen Schmitt with Lauren Coodley

The Dry Creek-Lokoya women were really a very good team. They stuck together in spite of the opposition and they became effective public safety service providers for their community. When they faced a dilemma or a situation they had never encountered before they analyzed the problem, made a plan and set about to deal effectively with whatever the problem was.
– Norm Silver, Retired Battalion Chief, 2009.

When Lois Apperson moved with her family to Mt. Veeder Road in the early seventies, she joined the Dry Creek-Lokoya Women’s Fire Brigade (DCL), a group of women fire fighters recently formed in the Mt. Veeder area. Even though DCL was the first such female unit in the county, Apperson never thought of herself as special, nor, she thinks, did the rest of the some dozen women firefighting pioneers. “We did it out of necessity—we needed to protect our homes, and the men couldn’t get to the fires quickly from their jobs.”

The women reasoned that they could at least get the trucks to the fires so the men could go straight to the scene without having to stop to pick them up. But first they had to learn to drive the 35,000-pound vehicles. Enter California Division of Forestry (CDF) Battalion Chief Norm Silver, whom Apperson credits with inspiring the group with his “you can do anything” attitude. “He gave us the confidence to do what we did.” Silver, the first CDF training officer in the state recalls:

“I took two units down to the big parking lot at the Napa Fairgrounds on Third Street–a military surplus 1941 Dodge Power Wagon and a 1947 Dodge, which had been purchased by the county. The first rule was to learn to use the mirrors—you have to properly adjust them before turning the key. The second rule is to check the water level in the batteries before taking a truck out. After that the women practiced pulling the trucks in and out–we had to use pillows to adjust the seats for Ila Crook, the shortest gal.”

Echoing Silver’s memory, Lois Apperson remembers that 5’ 1” Joan King had to drive the big E-16 engine because she lived closest to where it was parked. “Going through the gears was difficult at first. We had to double clutch the old trucks.” Double clutching is crucial to driving any big rig, It requires extra motion and effort because the driver has to shift first into neutral and then into the desired gear, releasing the clutch twice, once for each shift. Every one of the DCL women mastered it.

Having the trucks at the scene ahead of time helped, but it didn’t get the fires put out. According to Apperson, that prompted the women to begin saying to themselves: “Why wait? We’re here—why not fight the fires ourselves until the men got here?” Norm Silver’s growing concern over slow response time prompted the same idea. However, actual fire fighting would require additional training. Silver recalls first meeting with the women in a vacant lot on Dry Creek Road. “I asked, ‘do any of you think you can’t do this?’ and not one hand went up.” The women learned to handle the ladders and the hoses, and to run the pumps. Once mastering the operation of the equipment on all three trucks, they went out on controlled burns and began fighting fires. Apperson recalls:

“CDF called us the Dry Creek Day Crew, on the pager, and soon they were calling us 24 hours a day. Some of the other rural units did not want women in their organizations, so DCL was unique compared to the rest of Napa.”

Silver agrees: “I took a couple years of razzing for being in favor of the women, but I didn’t care!” Apperson, who eventually recruited her own husband, Ruffin, to the group, remembers that “a lot of married couples joined the group together, and the men in our area were very proud of the women.” Apperson also recalls: “I would throw on denim over a nightgown or halter top, and away I would go. They didn’t make women’s boots then, so mine were old boots handed down by another firefighter’s teenaged son.”

She carries with pride memories of the 19 years she served: sitting on coiled up hoses in the cold tin sheds where they received their first training—son, Ted, starting her car while daughter, Angie, helped her into the heavy fire gear. She sees herself waiting on the road for the fire truck to pick her up, and her friend Alice Beers fighting fires into her seventies. “But what held it all together,” she adds, “was the trust the women had in each other.”

In 1981, the same year she fought the devastating Atlas Peak Fire, Apperson graduated from Sonoma State University with a degree in history. A decade later, she retired from fire fighting as a Captain and the District’s Historian. “None of it ever leaves you,” she says. Lois Apperson still lives on Mt. Veeder Road, satisfied with having been part of a unique group that proved that women could fight fires. Thirteen years after DCL formed, the City of Napa hired its first female firefighter, Jane D’Zell, in 1985; her uniform is displayed at the Napa Firefighters Museum on Main Street.

Lois Apperson’s story can help us remember the almost forgotten Seventies and the many astonishing new possibilities for women inaugurated during that decade. Equally, we need to celebrate men like Norm Silvers who steadfastly encouraged women in these new adventures. The authors wish to thank Lois and Norm for graciously sharing their memories of the Lokoya-Dry Creek women’s crew.

Additional Sources:
“Fighting Fire” by Caroline Paul

Website http://www.homewine.com/slides/firegals2000/index.htm

Paula Amen Schmitt’s poems and Lauren Coodley’s essays can be found in If Not for History… Recovering the Stories of Women in Napa, available at the Napa Historical Society. Amen Schmitt also collaborated with Coodley on the second edition of the Arcadia publication, Napa: The Transformation of an American Town, available at Copperfield’s Books.

http://www.napavalleymarketplace.com

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