Washington’s 1940s-era fire siren gets new lease on life
Thanks to a literal passing of the hat, the Little Town of Washington’s newly refurbished fire siren will sound off today at noon.
Many Nevada County communities, in the year since the Camp Fire that devastated Paradise, have been looking to install low-tech warning systems like the kind of sirens that fell out of favor two decades ago. Washington — whose volunteer fire department operates under the auspices of its water district — never actually got rid of its siren, even though it was no longer operational, said Fire Chief Mike Stewart.
Stewart believes the siren was installed some time in the 1950s as a civil defense or air raid siren. Initially it was mounted on the store, he said, adding, “The switch was where anyone could hit it.” So, 14 years ago, it was moved to the roof of the fire station.
“We don’t have cell coverage here,” Stewart said, “This is the only way to notify the community if there is a problem.”
The siren had deteriorated over time and initially the thought was to simply replace it. But Stewart found that the backlog for a new siren was too long, and even a used one on eBay started at $2,700.
“We asked Motor Electric if they could rebuild it,” he said, adding that the quote was for $800.
But, Stewart said, the water district board did not have the money.
And that’s where the hat-passing paid off, after Charity Jackson, owner of the Washington Hotel and member of the board, decided to take matters into her own hands.
“We’ve started a Firewise Community in training and I’m on the committee,” Jackson explained.
“I literally came out of (that) meeting and came back to the bar,” she said. “I donated $200 and the owner of River Rest happened to be there, and she donated $200.”
As Stewart tells it, Jackson then borrowed a guy’s hat and made the round of the bar.
“Within 30 minutes I had $807 in cash,” Jackson said.
Then it was Motor Electric’s turn.
“We love working on older stuff like that, resurrecting it and bringing it back to life,” said owner David Grande.
Motor Electric actually had to send some of the parts to the East Coast.
“The windings and the armature inside the motor were basically burned up,” Grande said. “We had to disassemble it all the way down and send some of the pieces back to Chicago to have it rewound.”
Then, said employee Emilio Guerra, “We blasted all the rust off and repainted it. … It almost looked like (it was) an old World War Two air raid siren. It was definitely a fun project to work on.”
After Guerra posted photos of the project, as well as a video of a siren test, an anonymous donor walked into the shop and paid the whole bill.
“They just walked in and talked to us and paid the bill right there,” Grande said. “It’s cool how the community pitched in to get this done.”
According to Stewart and Jackson, the $800 that had been raised will still go to fire prevention. With approval, Stewart hopes to use it to repair a broken water pump.
The siren will get its first real test Saturday, although Stewart gave it a quick test blast Thursday when he installed it.
“We’ll run it for a minute and see where in the canyon we can hear it,” he said.
With no cell service and limited internet, Washington cannot rely on the county’s Code Red alert system. And, Jackson noted, if the power goes out, the landlines are down.
“We have to be self-reliant,” she said.
“We’ll use it for town evacuations,” Stewart said of the siren. … Three blasts will be the evacuation signal.”
The Town of Washington is working with the U.S. Forest Service to create signage for evacuation routes other than Washington Road, he said, adding that firefighters would be out directing traffic.
“Realistically, we would have a hard time (evacuating),” Stewart said, adding, “We’ll see. Actually, hopefully, we won’t see.”
Just the testing of the siren will have a beneficial effect, he said, if those who hear it start planning ahead for that worst-case scenario.
“What do I do?” Stewart said. “That’s the important question to answer.”
To contact Staff Writer Liz Kellar, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 530-477-4236.
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