Mill Valley started out as a large mill, hence the name Mill Valley. The town grew rather fast as word spread of the beautiful Mount Tamalpais and the wonderful ocean on the other side. People started buying up lots from $100.00 an acre to $500.00 for 3 acres. People built summer homes to get away from the big cities nearby, San Francisco and Oakland.
On September 19, 1859, a fire on Mount Tamalpais burned for three months. Then on September 14, 1881, while clearing the land of brush, briars and poison oak, William Pixley and Thomas Colins started a fire that would soon get out of control. It raged for seven days, consuming some 65,000 acres, an area 8 miles wide and 12 miles long. Pixley died in the fire. Some say that Pixley realized what he had done and dropped dead of a heart attack.
People soon realized the danger that was among the beauty of Mount Tamalpais. The Mill Valley Fire Department was first organized in 1890 as a volunteer force. The first documentation of the fire department came on August 16, 1893 according to the Mill Valley Record.
Not limiting itself to fire fighting activities exclusively, the organization became one of the biggest social groups in town with the first firemen's ball being held on April 20, 1894.
During the first year of operation, the volunteers were a bit disorganized in their firefighting activities. But by 1901, the Mill Valley Record editorialized that they had finally become an efficient organization. Also in 1901, the town trustees passed an ordinance making the group an official one. The fire fighters voted Joseph Watson as their chief and president. A second ordinance was also developed and approved which directed the Tamalpais Land and Water Company to provide adequate water supplies for fire protection.
Since there was no firehouse, the department rented space at MeLeod's hall to store the fire equipment. In October of 1902 the town trustees met on Tuesday night to discuss fire department needs. The town would appropriate $200.00. The department would raise at least $250.00 more by popular subscription. This money would be spent to secure 750 feet of 1.5 inch hose and two hose carts. The town already had one. It was proposed to divide the hose into 3 sections to be stationed on carts in different parts of the valley.
The specification for the first wagon was developed in 1903 and delivery was taken in 1907. The wagon was outfitted with four hundred feet of house ladders, buckets and fire axes. It was bright red and yellow.
1907 was also the year the department approved new uniforms for the members which consisted of a red blouse with a blue button front, a badge, a cap, and a wide white belt, with "Mill Valley Volunteer Dept" inscribed on the back. They also purchased rubber jackets and helmets for the firefighters. An agreement was reached with Dowd's Stable to rent horses to pull the fire carts at a cost of $5.00 for a day call and $10.00 for a night call. Construction of the first fire house also began in 1907 on city owned property located on Corte Madera Avenue.
On February 1, 1907, trustees were calling a special tax election to raise funds to operate the fire department. Trustees were unanimous that the department should have a paid chief. The name of A.J. Budar was suggested. Budar ran the harness and saddlery shop. The city also suggested that they purchase a light wagon to carry ropes, axes and buckets at night. The first budget report for the first firehouse after it was complete was as follows:
- Supplies, $14.26
- Fire Alarm, $20.00
- Rent, $17.50
- Fire Chief , $45.00
- Repairs Hydrant, $ 5.00
- Fire Hose, $10.00
- Horses For Rent, $15.00
The volunteers proved their efficiency while participating in a hose cart "make and break" competition in San Rafael in 1907. Competing against members of the Petaluma and San Rafael forces, the Mill Valley volunteers won the competition with a time of 31 seconds.
In 1908, the department took delivery of a brass and chrome chemical engine built by Stempel Company for a cost of $375.00. In 1910, the fire bell was wired to be run electrically. In 1918, the first motorized fire engine was delivered. This signaled the departments move into a new era of fire fighting.
During the early days the town of Mill Valley was plagued by numerous brush fires on its borders and on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, the most devastating of these being the fire of 1929. It was on July 2 that a fire started along the rail road tracks near the double bow knot, swept down Blithedale Canyon, encouraged by 30 mile per hour winds. A shift in the wind turned the fire back on itself, but not before 110 homes had been destroyed. The loss was estimated at $1,045,500.00. It also destroyed most of the rail road tracks and the station on the mountain.
"People wept in the street, one house after another explodes before them, sending bricks flying like missles and leaving only charred chimneys. Below the horror, Mill Valleyans wrap beds, cribs, chairs and anything else they could hope to save in blankets. Possessions are strapped to the tops of Model A's and T's." (From an article in the Mill Valley Record.)
"September 27, 1945; 12:17pm, Smoke reported at the sawmill. 12:31pm, Fire confirmed. 12:45pm, Call the Army. 2:20pm, Army arrived. This is how an 18,000 acre fire began at the entrance of Carson Canyon. Seven days later it was under control. It was the fire that destroyed the sawmill." (From the log book.)
The Mill Valley Fire Department was also co-ed. A lot of people didn't know, even firefighters today don't know, but in 1943, during WWII, women smoke eaters were practicing in the tower pulling hose and driving the engine. They actually had a better time dressing down and boarding the engine than the men. But that was just a drill the men said, not the real thing. The Mill Valley Record reported a small grass fire on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais and it was quickly extinguished thanks to the Mill Valley firewomen.
In 1936 the city dedicated the new fire station and city hall complex at its present location on Corte Madera Avenue to the fire fighters of the 1929 fire.
In 1980, the city joined other fire agencies in the Southern Marin areas to form the Southern Marin Emergency Medical Paramedic System, with the paramedic rescue unit stationed at the Mill Valley Public Safety Building (Station 7). In 1981, the city of Mill Valley entered into a functional consolidation through a joint powers act with the Tamalpais Fire Protection District.
Mill Valley has come a long way from the beginning of the volunteer force. Instead of beating fires out with wet potato sacks and an old 1924 American La France, which we still have today, we have a large versatile modern fire department. Mill Valley Fire Department members are specialized in a wide range of skills in addition to firefighting and emergency medicine. Most members have additional expertise in such skills as fire investigations, high-angle cliff rescue, Neighborhood Emergency Response Teams, CPR and first aid instruction to name a few. Our main concern remains the threat of a major wild fire in Mill Valley. Heavily wooded canyons and the steep terrain of our community create a dangerous combination in the event of a wild fire.
Mill Valley's estimated value is 1.5 billion dollars with 14,000 people living here. They depend on the department to protect them and their property. Our two stations are manned with 7 fire fighters on duty and 24 line personnel.
We use four pieces of equipment on a shift: Two engines with 500 gallons of water each, one wildland fire engine and one command truck.