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Retirees share fiery past

They don’t battle blazes anymore, except when the barbecues next to their RVs flare up.

But the retired members of the Los Angeles Fire Department still have a hot time at their annual Grass Valley Reunion, now in its 27th year.

“About five years we were at a retiree’s home,” said organizer Don Hostetler, of western Nevada County. “When the lady of the house had to stand in line to get into her own bathroom, they decided to move it here” to the Nevada County Fairgrounds.



“We’ve had up to 550 attend,” he said, “and this year we will probably have about 325 and about 63 RVs.”

They come mostly to socialize with old friends, but the retired firefighters also hold a raffle during the week-long reunion, the proceeds from which go to the L.A. Firemen’s Relief Fund for widows and orphans of firefighters. Every year about $3,000 is also shared among Nevada County charities on a revolving basis. This year the Friendship Club and the Court Appointed Special Advocates for children will benefit.




The firefighters will golf, reminisce and maybe take a gambling junket bus to Reno during their week here. The week will culminate with a pit barbecue Saturday serving some 300 pounds of beef.

But mostly, it’s about the old days.

“It gives us a chance to get together and tell old work stories,” said Herb Tourtillot, 84. “The same stories are told every year, and each year, they get a little better.”

Like most firemen, Tourtillot did a variety of things during his 28 years in the department, including building inspections for fire and general safety.

“Being a fireman is a great job because when that bell rings and you leave the firehouse, you never know what you’re going to,” Tourtillot said. “It could be a fire, a guy wanting to jump off a high-rise building or a car accident, and then you had to make decisions in seconds.”

Hostetler, a virtual youth in the retiree crowd at 67, worked all over the city “and served a number of years in arson” investigation.

“I retired as a captain of a fireboat,” said Lee Kabler, 84, from Torrance. “Two of my divers are here and another captain.” He also served in a mountain patrol battling wildfires, in training and in south central Los Angeles.

Frank Manwarren, 85, was a uniform photographer for the department. He took photos of “Everything, fires, for PR and the newspapers. I did photography at night, and I’d get my negatives done and rush them down to the (LA) Times so they’d have fast photos” for the morning paper.

Don Gillett, 74, was walking around the crowd wearing a shirt that said “Old Guys Rule.” He said he wears it while restoring his ’57 Chevy.

“I was an engineer in East LA,” Gillett said. “I miss the camaraderie and the handball at the firehouse. I don’t miss getting under my rig and cleaning it.”

Gillett is from the Sierra, near Fresno. He comes every year along with others from Washington, Oregon, Utah, Idaho, Arizona, Nevada and California.

“We had one guy who came from South Carolina last year,” Hostetler said.

About 30 of the retired firemen live in western Nevada County area and a few in Roseville.

That group organizes the annual reunion and runs it. Their contributions vary and for Wednesday’s luncheon, Ralph Bischofberger came through like he does every year.

The oldest retiree of the local group baked 20 carrot cakes.

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To contact senior staff writer Dave Moller, e-mail davem@theunion.com or call 477-4237.


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