On El Camino Real, in the heart of downtown Santa Margarita, you can find a small, unassuming building that houses a very important and most respected part of the community, the Santa Margarita Volunteer Fire Department. The department is the hub of activity for the Santa Margarita Fire Protection District, established on August 2, 1921 by the San Luis Obispo County Board of Supervisors. Being surrounded by a single property owner (the Santa Margarita Ranch), the Fire Protection District serves properties on 307 acres within the boundaries of the town proper.
In nearly 100 years since it’s special district designation, the area served has not changed much with revenue remaining low while costs and time requirements to provide today’s standard “essential services” has increased exponentially.
The recent dissolution of the Cayucos FPD left Santa Margarita FPD as the sole single service special district in the County, but with the latest vote by Templeton residents approving a $180 per year parcel tax to maintain and improve their local fire protection, changes are happening.
History was quiet in regard to the Santa Margarita Fire Protection District from its inception in 1921 until around 1962. Stories go that during those early years there was no firehouse and any equipment was located wherever it was most convenient for whoever showed up to help, but a new era was about to begin.
Herb Brazzi, the man who would become the first Fire Chief of the new Santa Margarita Volunteer Fire Department, said the County had given the town a 1938 International fire engine with a Barton-American 250-gallon pump and 300-gallon tank for fire protection but it was rarely used and was parked behind various businesses or homes in town.
Nothing much changed until 1962 when Vern Stewart got wind of talks to substantially raise the district fire tax and he started looking into the situation. In his research, Vern found fire district tax dollars were going directly to Mr. Claud Proud, then Secretary of the Board of Fire Commissioners of Santa Margarita, owner of the Shell Star Garage (now the Antique Barn), running the “Claud Proud Fire Department” and responding to any fires himself. According to Mr. Brazzi the engine hadn’t been maintained in years and barely ran, was difficult to get to being housed in a narrow area on a concrete pad behind the building and had frayed hoses.
Vern Stewart and Herb Brazzi decided that they could do better and started the process for what would become the new, and greatly improved organization of the Santa Margarita Fire Protection District. The community rallied, a General District Election took place and Vernon L. Stewart was certified as being elected to the office of Fire Commissioner on April 20, 1963.
Progress continued rapidly with the establishment of a Fire Board to oversee the income and distribution of funds for the Fire District, Herb Brazzi was made the first Fire Chief and they started drumming up volunteers. A “nice lady” donated property as a site for a new firehouse and money in an existing reserve fund was used to build the new (still current) Santa Margarita Fire Station and to purchase a brand new 1965 model, white, Ford outfitted by the Apache Fire Truck Company of El Monte, California. The department’s first white truck was equipped with a bumper-mounted 700 gallons-per-minute pump and a 500 gallon tank (still in use up until 1995). Herb Brazzi remained Fire Chief until his retirement after the Highway 41 fire in 1994.
The Santa Margarita community loves its volunteer fire department who have come to their aid many times over the years, most notably during the major fire events of the Highway 41 fire and the 2015 Cuesta Fire. SMVFD is very involved with the community, approving and participating in Fourth of July Parade activities, hosting an annual Easter Egg Hunt, providing public outreach on Fire Safety to the school and more. The department not only serves the district but also provides first responder auto-aid through an agreement with the county covering the area from Garden Farms to the bridge on Highway 58 and from Highway 101 at Santa Barbara Road and fro the north base to the south base of Cuesta Grade.
The recent dissolution of the Cayucos FPD prompted the Special Districts Fire Protection Study for the County of San Luis Obispo in November, 2018, in which Santa Margarita FPD was reviewed along with four other special district areas. The study, with input from SMFPD President John Wilkins and Chief Bob Murach, found SMFPD to be in serious financial trouble given that the primary funding source is a small portion of property taxes, based on their volunteer operational costs in 1978 when Prop. 13 took effect. This rate has barely increased and is now at only 7.89 percent, translating roughly to a mere $79 per $100,000 of assessed property value per year going to SMFPD. The study continues to state that the “future of SMFPD is unclear beyond five years” and that sustainability during that time is “predicated on the ability to recruit and retain paid call firefighters and develop staff into officers.” Also, with the ability to only borrow three times their annual budget, SMVFD has relied extensively on “grants and donations for support equipment procurement and operations” and even though SMVFD owns property to build a new station, the cost is far beyond what’s possible at this point.
SMVFD staffing currently consists of one part time Fire Chief, one part time Deputy Chief, one Paid Call Firefighter (PCF) Captain, one PCF Lieutenant, four Paid Call Firefighters and four new recruits. Chief Bob Murach says they always need new volunteers who must go through the Firefighter Academy, taking a one-year minimum of training before becoming a PCF. Volunteers from all walks of life are welcome to show up and go through a drill held at the station every second and fourth Wednesday of the month at 7 p.m. You must be 18 to join and 21 to drive. SMVFD is located in the heart of town at 22375 El Camino Real, Santa Margarita.