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Deep Roots: Second-generation firefighter

Kevin Wiser
Eileen JoyceCDF Capt. Charlie Jakobs describes the old fire alarm system that once protected Grass Valley, where Jakobs was a volunteer firefighter.
ALL | GrassValleyArchive

Five gold stars are stitched to the sleeve of Charlie Jakobs’ uniform.

“That means I’m an old guy,” joked Jakobs, a veteran of too many 911 calls, house fires and wildland blazes to count.

Each star stands for five years with the Grass Valley Fire Department and who knows how many lives saved, homes spared, and wildfires halted.

The department once was known as the Grass Valley Volunteer Fire Department, made up of citizens from all walks of life, just as many of the county’s fire departments are today.

“My contribution is just one sliver,” Jakobs said. “You add everyone together, and you’ve got a fire department.”

Jakobs’ drive to become a firefighter began with Sunday visits from his Uncle “Doc” Lobecker, an alarm superintendent with the volunteer GVFD in the 1950s and early ’60s.

“He’d stop down on a Sunday, and the general alarm would go off and I’d go to the scene of the fire with him,” Jakobs recalled. “He was my mentor, the one who got me interested in firefighting.”

The red fire boxes on telephone poles around Grass Valley were installed by Lobecker, who also kept them in working order, Jakobs said.

“The boxes were tied into a big air horn that sat atop City Hall,” said Jakobs of the days before fire departments were equipped with pagers and radios. “They’d honk out these air blasts, and volunteer firefighters from all around could tell by the number of blasts where the fire was.”

Now the same alarms run silently to City Hall and are relayed to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection command center.

Lobecker died of a heart attack in 1964 while fighting a fire at the Salvation Army Depot on Mill Street in Grass Valley.

“Doc” was the second fireman to die in the line of duty in Nevada County and one of 13 firefighters and police officers honored for making the supreme sacrifice, Jakobs said. Their names are etched in a memorial stone placed at Rood Administrative Center in May.

For as long as Jakobs can remember, his uncle was part of the volunteer GVFD and considered a special man by the entire community.

“He was very special to me because he was a firefighter,” Jakobs said. “All little boys look up to firemen.”

At age 17, three years after Lobecker died, Jakobs followed in his uncle’s footsteps and hired on with CDF as a seasonal firefighter.

After spending a couple summers with CDF, Jakobs enlisted in the Navy, where he fought fires on aircraft carriers.

After the Vietnam War, Jakobs came back to Nevada County and volunteered for GVFD while maintaining his position with CDF.

In 1995, Jakobs retired as an honorary member of the GVFD. He’s now a CDF captain and also serves as the Nevada County fire-protection planner.

At one time or another, Jakobs has worked in every CDF fire station in Nevada County.

“And the rest is history,” he said.

Jakobs’ ancestors came West over the Emigrant Trail and arrived in California in 1850. “They started in Missouri and came all the way westward,” Jakobs said.

His father, Frank, was born in Monterey and moved with his family to Grass Valley in the late 1920s.

Frank met Jakobs’ mother, Harriet, a Grass Valley native, and they married in 1936.

Jakobs was born at the old W.C. Jones Memorial Hospital on Church Street and raised in a house in Broadview Heights in Grass Valley.

Jakobs said he’s amazed by all the changes he’s seen since he was a kid. He can remember when the county’s first traffic light was installed at the intersection of East Main and South Auburn streets in Grass Valley.

“One of the things that have changed are the sounds around town,” Jakobs said. “Grass Valley is noisier with the freeway and all the traffic.”

When he was growing up, Grass Valley’s population and elevation each were roughly 2,500.

“The elevation didn’t change, but the population sure did,” he said.

One of the county’s most famous fires swept through downtown Grass Valley in 1855.

“It was known as the ‘Great Fire,'” Jakobs said. It started in a hotel on East Main Street and burned 30 acres of downtown Grass Valley before it was stopped at the lower end of Mill Street.

But Jakobs was right in the middle of the wind-driven 49er Fire that swept down from San Juan Ridge Sept. 11, 1988, and destroyed more than 150 homes and 350 structures in the Rough and Ready and Lake Wildwood areas.

“That fire broke out on a Sunday morning, and by early afternoon it had already crossed the South Fork of the Yuba River and was headed toward Lake Wildwood,” Jakobs said. “You could hear it coming; it sounded like a freight train.”

Jakobs was on Starduster Drive telling residents to evacuate when flames jumped the road behind him. He turned the CDF truck around and punched it.

“I drove through the front of flames,” Jakobs said. “The wind was pushing the fire and laying it over sideways. It was just like driving through a blow torch.”

The fire burned for nearly three days and consumed 33,500 acres. By Wednesday, Jakobs said crews had built a 55-mile-long break around the fire.

“We were just so fortunate that no lives were lost,” Jakobs said. “It was a tremendous effort, it was a war. But that’s what we do. We reinforce our troops until we overwhelm the enemy, and there’s no backing out.”

The 49er Fire was just one of the many risky encounters Jakobs has had as a Nevada County firefighter.

“This line of work is extremely dangerous,” he said. “It’s the nature of the beast. When everyone is running away from the incident, we’re running toward it.”

Jakobs said the night he was sworn in as a Grass Valley firefighter and the morning of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were two of his proudest moments.

The firefighters who died when the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed were doing what they were trained to do, he said. “If not, tens of thousands of lives could have been lost. It makes me feel very, very proud to be part of this occupation.”

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