Until 1899, there was no fire department in Yuma. Property owners had to fight blazes along with neighbors willing to help. The existence of a fire was announced by firing a six-gun into the air. It brought volunteers who formed a bucket brigade trying to extinguish the blaze.
Two big fires brought a change. The first began on a Sunday in December 1898. It nearly wiped out the business section on Main Street. Beginning in the Vienna Bakery, it quickly spread to the general store of Sanguinetti and Gandolfo. A jewelry store owned by Wiley and Marcelleo, Jack Dunne's Ruby Saloon, Hodges Meat Market, Meeden's Saloon, the Gem Saloon and several other small businesses were soon ablaze.
Local citizens finally brought that conflagration under control with the aid of volunteers from the saloons on Main Street. They emptied quickly as their customers pitched in to help.
Disasters often bring out the best in men, but sometimes the worst as well. While many helped fight the fires, others used it as an opportunity to loot the affected businesses. A dozen thieves were arrested with stolen goods in their possession.
A second big fire followed only four months later at the Fort Yuma Indian School. After the Army abandoned Fort Yuma in 1883, the buildings were used to educate Indian children. A blaze swept the institution, which destroyed a girls dormitory, a classroom, kitchen and dining room.
Beginning in the dormitory, it spread so rapidly there was fear it would burn every building on the grounds. Quechans fought the blaze with the assistance of volunteers from town.
Two big fires in such a short time made local people see the need for a fire department. While the old newspapers aren't clear who took the lead, it may have been Will Buck. He chaired a meeting at the court house on May 9, 1899, to organize a volunteer firefighting organization. The men who attended wrote a constitution and agreed to meet four days later to elect officers.
At the meeting on May 13th, Buck was elected chief of the volunteer department. Charter members included many persons whose names might be recognized by longtime Yumans. Among them were Albert Townsend, Eugene Sanguinetti, James Polhamus, O.C. Johnson, and L.C. Stahl. All became members of “Hook and Chemical Company #1.” It had a total of 44 volunteers.
A few days after Buck's selection as chief, he celebrated by opening a keg of beer at Bell's Soda Works. Unable to consume the entire keg alone, he shared the contents with the other volunteer firemen. Our pioneer newspaper, the Arizona Sentinel, reported that the participants drank to Buck's health.
Acting immediately, the department ordered equipment. On June 19th, a hose cart and hose arrived. The newspaper reported that a fire station would soon be erected “near the Sentinel office.”
Once an organized group was in existence, it improved the method of announcing that a fire existed. A fire bell was mounted on the tower of the city hall. When someone discovered a blaze, they ran to city hall and rang the bell to summon volunteers.
James Barney's book, “Yuma,” reports that by the turn of the century, firefighting equipment was mounted on a cart pulled by the men. Three ladders of various lengths, 10 buckets, four 40-gallon fire extinguishers, a large hook with a pole and a 40-foot chain, and two hand pikes made up their equipment.
Despite the existence of eager volunteers, downtown Yuma suffered another disastrous fire in 1905. The men might have been able to bring it under control more quickly had conditions been different. Unable to get water from the city system to fight the blaze because the power plant was shut down for repairs, they were almost powerless to stop it.
Businesses along Main Street between First and Colorado were rapidly destroyed. When the conflagration spread to a wood pile at the power plant, the firefighters battled four hours to keep it from destroying that structure. Fortunately, they succeeded. Barney's book suggests that the entire town might have burned had they failed.
As the city grew, the volunteer department became a professional organization, and eventually, the chief and firemen became full-time city employees.