Gib Buckman story

San Miguel Fire Department Celebrates Gib Buckman’s 60 years of Volunteer Firefighting.
Written by Laverne Buckman and Michelle Hido
Sixty plus years, Gilbert “Gib” Buckman has spent serving his community and he’s far from done. That community is San Miguel, on the central coast of California just north of Paso Robles and next to the Camp Roberts California National Guard post. As a kid he learned from San Miguel’s volunteer firemen the essential place that serving the community had in the success of it. Gib always looked up to those guys for the wisdom and willingness to share information, teaching and jumping in to assist where needed. Those volunteer firemen, all local residents and businessmen, now deceased, helped however they could to continually make improvements to the fire department and strengthen the community through combined effort and planning. As Gib says “times have changed, but the future generations can always learn from the past”.
The San Miguel Fire Department was formed in July of 1887 with an 1881 Hook & Ladder Bucket Wagon built by local resident volunteers in the old blacksmith shop at 13th St. a half block from Mission St. (restored with the help of John Green and still owned by the San Miguel fire department). The first fire station was across the alley from that same blacksmith shop, by 1931 The San Miguel Fire Department got their first fire truck, a 1926 Dodge. Later the San Miguel Fire Department Station was relocated to the base of 13th and L Street. It had a loud siren that could be heard around town and was set off whenever there was a fire. In the late 1950’s into the early 1970’s the Fire Department had a phone line that rang at some of the homes of the volunteer firemen. That line would break into any call the phone currently had and would ring steadily until it was answered. Since there were no hand radios used in the early days, firemen had regular home phones (no cell phones yet) and pink fire department phones with a white button in the center that you pushed when there was a fire and it would directly set off the Fire Station siren. The person who pressed the phone’s red button would then personally go to the Fire Station and tell the firefighters where the fire was. All able-bodied men and occasionally women showed up to help, that included boys in town who had worked with the fire department through the Boy Scout activities. Store owners Art Eddy and Joe Witcosky would leave someone in charge at their businesses or close up shop to go help with a fire when the siren went off. Many dedicated community volunteers taught and worked with Gib including Kenny Heinsohn the Scott Master, Ted Carter the Fire Chief, Randall Stewart a fire chief, Joe Witcosky a fire chief, Tommy Burns, Ben Hoffmann, Art Eddy, Bill Chames, Buzz Eyler, Bill Chames, Clinton Buckman [Gib’s Dad], Bugs Twisselmann, Ken Fee, and Art Keining were some of the regular volunteer firemen in San Miguel that Gib remembers. And from the later years, which includes Cal Fire, Gib learned a lot from Everett Reasons, Pete Duckworth, Don Ashton, Lee Freedman, Warren Risko, John and Ed Hurl, Ron White, Walt Fitzhue, Dennis Burns, Matt Mihawka, Dick Cadey, Mike Cole, and Larry Flag.
In the late 1940’s the Boy Scouts of San Miguel were recruited to help the San Miguel Volunteer Fire Department. The Boy Scout’s duties were restricted to cleaning equipment, helping burn off vacant lots and helping with grass fires. San Miguel’s community would grow and shrink with the activities at Camp Roberts, 436,000 troops passed through for a 17-week training cycle during World War II and 300,000 during the Korean War. But it was left to San Miguel to take care of the lots and buildings that went empty in San Miguel when Camp Roberts was in ‘caretaker status’; a time when it’s population was drastically reduced and thereby San Miguel’s was too. National Guard and Army Reserve would still train, weapons testing was done and Navy live-fire training for patrol boat gunners; but the reduced troop numbers also shrunk San Miguel population and businesses. San Miguel’s Boy Scouts were an integral part of the volunteer firefighters, they weren’t allowed to help fight structure fires, but they were recruited to assist fighting grass fires. When there was a major structure fire the boy scouts directed traffic and assisted
where they could, until they turned 16 or 17 years old and they were allowed more responsibility. Besides Gib, some of those Boy Scouts who served as volunteer firemen before age of 16 were Dick and Donnie Hoffmann, Jim and Jerry Bonnifield, Jimmy Hughes, Donnie Sanchez, Tommy McKnight, Roy Twisselmann, Randy Fee, and Mike Stewart.
Some of Gib’s memories of his early days as a scout in training:
Gib got his start around 11 years old, Ted Carter the Fire Chief moved in across from Gib’s home. Gib would mow Ted’s lawn, help wash the fire truck when Ted brought it home or help burn lots in the summertime. Burning lots was a routine process for the Fire Department in the 50’s though the 70’s and burn barrels were also used regularly. When lots were burned the young Boy Scout recruits got valuable firefighting lessons. ‘The Fire Trucks in those days were equipped with a spray bar on the front of the trucks and a valve was on the passenger side. The Fire Chief or adult in charge would drive the perimeter of each vacant lot spraying water all around it as he went. Gib or other Boy Scouts would then jump out of the truck and using a specific broom type fire stick they would walk across the lot setting it on fire. Once lit the scouts and volunteers would supervise the fire to make sure it didn’t get out of control. This was done throughout the town to prevent major fires from occurring later due to dry brush build up. At the same time the Boy Scouts learned how to control fires and how various debris in the weeds responded to a fire and how to control those responses.
One-time Jimmy Hughes and Gib were training behind the fire house. They decided to check out the inside of a fire truck and playing around with the buttons they found one to push and the red light on top of truck turned on. ‘Wow!’ ‘Neat!’ Seeing another button, they pushed it and a big flood light came on. Another button turned on the truck’s siren. About that time a lady came out of Sims Hotel half-dressed and screaming at us, as Kenny Heinsohn, the scout master, drove up she chewed out Kenny. He told us to turn off that siren or we’d ruin the “ole whore’s” business. We had to go find some of the older guys so we could ask them what a ‘whore’ was. “As it turned out, I am the only one of those Boy Scouts who has continued to be involved as a San Miguel volunteer fireman up to the present day, although Jimmy Hughes did become a fireman at Santa Maria airport. Following high school, even in the few years I was gone during weekdays to Junior College or out of town to work, I still helped with the fire department on weekends.”
One time “There was a 2-story house fire on Mission St. between 10th and 11th Street. Buzz Eyler was on a ladder trying to spray water down from top. While he was up top spraying water, someone turned up the water pressure from pump. It was too much pressure and it lifted Buzz along with the ladder into the air, spun him around, and back to the ground. Gib remembers his amazement as Buzz just got up and back up the ladder he went again to “get the job done”. Unfortunately, the house was a loss, but they were able to prevent it from spreading to other homes and the Grain Mill’s barn.
Early memories of fires the Boy Scouts assisted with
There was a time when two fires occurred about the same time. One was on N Street just across from the SM Flouring Mill Warehouse. Evadne Murphy inadvertently burned down her neighbor’s house. “Murph” (as she was called) took ashes out of her wood stove and dumped them over the fence onto the dry grass in the yard of her neighbor, Jake Tuley which resulted in Jake’s house catching on fire. Just before they were alerted to that fire, the firemen and Scout volunteers had responded to a fire on the hill east of the old Methodist Church. Which was close to where 11th St. would intersect with the present-day 101 freeway. We used shovels on the grass fire to protect the church and the old McGowan house. Division of Forestry, now CAL Fire, also responded and worked on stopping the fire at the top of the hill while the volunteers controlled the fire at the bottom of the hill to keep it from spreading into town. Some of the volunteers who responded to the house fire were delayed because they had to wait for a train to clear the
tracks, and Jake Tuley’s house burned to the ground. “Trains often blocked the tracks in those days because they stopped to pick up lime rock at the loading area just north of 16th St.”
In 1956 “there was a fire at Mumford Court, located off of N St. between 16th & 17th, and consisting of a group of relocated Almond Acres houses along with a few more small houses. It was a big fire and Fire Chief Joe Witcosky, allowed the teenager Boy Scouts to help fight that fire. Unfortunately, a body was found inside one of the buildings that a soldier and his wife rented. The Military Police showed up and made us teenagers move away from the house to stay out of the way. The MP’s investigated and determined that the soldier was killed by his wife and her boyfriend and they then torched the house. Fortunately, we were able to stop the fire damage to just that one house.”
In 1956 or 1957 Dick Hoffmann, age 16 and Gib, 15, were at Ben’s workshop by the park working on the ‘49 Rio fire engine. Ben Hoffmann was one of several mechanics in town and also a volunteer fireman. “Someone came by and said there were 2 fires- one at the grammar school, a new site on L Street. And a truck on fire at the Green Parrot Café, across from the Mission. At Ben’s direction, Dick drove the Rio, even though he wasn’t officially qualified. It was required to have a driver’s license to drive the fire trucks. We went to the grass fire at the grammar school, and the two of us were able to quickly put out the small fire. Ben took the 1940 Ford Fire Truck to the Green Parrot, but he did not have enough people to help him operate that truck. So, he got the two of us to come help him operate the truck and get that fire out too.”
The Start of Gib’s Determination to be a Firefighter engineer.
“Way back when we were kids Ben Hoffman, one of the volunteer firefighters, sent Dick Hoffmann and I to go put out a grass fire up by the school because Ben had to go to a truck fire at the Green Parrot Restaurant and Cocktail Lounge. Some of the town’s firemen were very upset that Ben let Dick and I put out the grass fire with Dick driving the truck cause Dick was 17 and I was 16. The next fire was a structure fire but we didn’t get to go on that call because we weren’t allowed to drive the trucks then. Right then I became determined to learn to drive those trucks so that when I finally turned 18 I could respond to all the fires. And that’s what I did and I never lost the desire to be able to help.” Gib also told us of how the fund to get a bigger fire station in San Miguel was started. The original Station 1 could fit the Bucket Wagon and a small fire truck, but not an engine. San Miguel needed a larger station, so the Volunteer Firefighters built a fund to eventually build one by giving back their small stipends for responding to San Miguel’s fires and emergency calls. “Those were some dedicated firemen back in the years I was growing up. They gave their time and their money for the community. They taught me all they knew back in my early years including that inspiration to help the community and those in need. My most memorable teachers were Randall Stewart and my Dad. They taught me all about how to make the two pumps on the 1940 Ford work, when to use them and what to use them on. Randall taught me some medical stuff he had learned in the Coast Guard. A lot of the volunteer firefighters came from Cal Fire (different name then), and Cal Fire had classes for us to go to on Saturdays.”
The Firefighting vehicles of San Miguel
1881 Hook and Ladder Bucket Wagon- The wagon was built, used and later restored by the San Miguel Firemen. Pioneering residents of San Miguel Mr. C.H. Hoffmann, Mr, Reasons and Mr. McClure were instrumental in building this wagon for the San Miguel Firefighting Volunteers in 1880. The iron on it was forged in San Miguel and the wood came from the local lumber yards. Sometime in the early 1900’s, in one of the many town fires the wagon was partially burned and had to be put out of service. In 2005 the San Miguel Firefighters Association completed it’s restoration, thanks to the leadership and resourcefulness of John Green. They were able to kee all the original iron, some of the original bucks and pipe poles. The Bucket Wagon and current firefighters in union suits still push the wagon in local parades.
1926 Dodge- was part of the department when Gib was a kid. It sat on a vacant lot for years before it disappeared.
1937 International Fire Truck- was purchased in the early 1950’s from Atascadero Fire and was only in service about 5 years. In 1965 it was replaced by the 1949 Rio Fire Engine and the Ford was put out of service. Some time later Gib took it to his Dad, Clinton Buckman’s house who was also a mechanic. Together with Ben and Randall Stewart, Gib and Clinton got the 1940 working and back to being used. It was eventually sold by the fire department. Recently the San Miguel Firefighters Association purchased it back for San Miguel and is in the process of restoring it.
1949 Rio Fire Engine- originally was used by Cal Fire in Greenfield or Gonzales and San Miguel Fire purchased it from them. Years later it was purchased in 1970’s or 80’s for a boy scout Camp on the 7X Ranch. This was the truck Dick Hoffmann drove when we got into trouble for taking it to fight a grass fire.
1940 Ford- Around 1950/51 Clinton Buckman and Ted Carter went to Oakhurst to get the 1940 Ford the department had purchased. “That old 1940 Ford has put out a lot of fires in this town even before I started running it. You can’t even imagine. As a 2-3 combination, it had the capabilities of fighting a structure fire or a grass fire. Only thing about it was you have to find a hydrant real quick. Combination trucks like it have been a real asset for a community like San Miguel. It made my day when the San Miguel Firefighters Association was able to get that truck back and restore it.”
Memorable Fires and Calls with 1940 Ford
A few fire memories just after high school: “It was sometime in the early 1960’s when somebody called and said there was a fire by the airstrip here in San Miguel, across the bridge on the north side. The 1940 Ford Fire Truck was then parked at my parents’ house on Verde St. because the Fire Dept. wanted to have a truck on the east side of railroad tracks in case the train blocked both crossings as had happened in the past. Since I could see smoke and nobody else responded, I took the truck and went over by the airport and put out a small grass fire. Then I saw more smoke indicating another fire a mile or so further north of the airport. I found it and I put out that grass fire only to see more smoke in the direction of Vineyard Canyon. Just before the “Y “at Vineyard Canyon, I put out another grass fire. While I was there, Division of Forestry (now CalFire) came by and told me to follow them to help with another fire. At the top of the “Y” a Ford Bronco had sheared a power pole and started a grass fire. The power pole was suspended about 3 ‘high across the road, so we couldn’t go farther up road to fight that fire on the other side. The Division of Forestry from Parkfield had to come from their side to put out the fire on other side of downed power pole. Fortunately, we were able to attend to the medical needs of the occupants of the car-two brothers and a girl were out hunting, and one brother had shot the other’s girlfriend in the leg. In their speeding race to get her to the hospital, they hit the power pole. Most of San Miguel’s responses in those years were for fires, but this time they had to help with the injuries, provide safety from power lines, and deal with the fire.”
“One day Camp Roberts needed help because they had an engine out of service and there was a fire in the building at the south end of the parade field. They requested San Miguel to bring an engine. The 1940 Ford was slow, and I was the only one available to go. Camp Roberts said they had plenty of help for me. They just needed the truck. So, I went, and, interestingly, it was the “San Miguel Valley Volunteers” from San Diego at Camp Roberts for their National Guard training who joined me at the main gate, 1 captain and 3 volunteers. I drove the truck down by the parade field where they had everything all set up to it. All I had to do was hook the engine up to a hydrant, and they took care of everything else. They laid out a (2 1/2inch) blitz line to get more water and more soldiers showed up to help with it.
Other Memorable Fires and Calls
Gib worked for the phone company, which let him assist the Fire Department as needed. The telephone company encouraged community involvement from its employees. One time at Wellsona and the railroad, a Sinton Helicopter went down, Gib saw that happen from his telephone truck. He assisted by stopping traffic until Highway patrol showed up. No one was injured, but crews responded from Paso Robles side of crash to assist whoever was in helicopter.
One day while in telephone truck, Gib saw big Huey Helicopter dropping fast and could see that it was coming down. He called Camp Roberts to tell them and they said, “that’s where they’re supposed to come down, at an airport”. He stopped at the airstrip to see what looked like the blades hitting the ground at end of airstrip. Then guys started stumbling, some crawling out. One guy saw Gib coming. He pointed a gun at him and told him to turn around, get out of there, and leave them alone. Gib left but called Camp Roberts and told them to take care of it.
In the 80’s there was a car wreck at San Marcos. “Around 3 or 4 in the morning, traffic was backed up way past 10th St. and fire truck had difficulty getting to fire. I took my Toyota pickup on Nygren to Warren Rd. and came out at San Marcos. When I got to San Marcos a Highway Patrol was there and started telling me what he needed to do to help them. San Miguel Fire responded started dealing with injured and later with dead bodies. A truck had run over 2 or 3 vans that were fully loaded with passengers, they had parked on side of road heading south because one van had a flat tire. The man who was working on the tire was pinned to the radiator of the truck as it continued moving forward with a ruptured diesel tank, spreading diesel on everything as it went. It caught on fire and then turned upside down in the Crossing at San Marcos. The man pinned to radiator ended up a little further down the road next to a burning tire. They took 20 people in 3-4 ambulances to hospital, mostly with cuts and abrasions and minor burns. But San Miguel couldn’t reach the fire on the other side of the truck- City or Paso or county fire responded to deal with truck fire. The body on ground next to the tire that was on fire was a crime scene and they just had to keep people away from it. Those people in the vans died in the fire. The truck driver ran off from accident and later was found in Arizona or Texas.” This was one of the worst kind of memories.
Gib’s fondest memory of being a San Miguel firefighter
“Anytime we succeeded in stopping an incident before it got really destructive. One time there was smoke coming out from under the San Miguel Flouring Mill Warehouse on N Street the Ford fire truck from county that we got for the department was parked in my yard because it wouldn’t fit in the old Station 1 Firehouse. So Gib took the truck and Todd Deline met him at the Warehouse. Todd crawled under the building to take a look and said, “just give me the hard line and we’ve got it”. Gib gave Todd the hardline and put the fire out and they raked it around and wet it down. What a relief, if the Warehouse had caught on fire who knows the horrendous results. Another time was with Kevin Burns up on K St. alley. A house was burning, and a storage shed next to the propane tanks was on fire and had already fallen onto the propane tanks. One tank was spewing off propane fire and the other just sitting there next to it. It’s safer if they are spewing, but they could blow if not. Kevin took one line and starting putting the house fire out. Brandon Phillips showed up and I got him to take one short line hose and keep it on both propane tanks, with orders to let the fire spew burn but keep the tanks wet. During this whole thing the truck wasn’t hooked to the hydrant. I had not even had time turn off the electricity with trying to keep the engine and water on the truck flowing. Charlie Brooks came along, hollered to me “I got your supply line” and grabbed the supply line and hooked it to the hydrant. That’s when I knew we had this thing. Camp Roberts came down the backside and focused on the propane tanks. Then 30 came and took the other side. Again, another fire that could have had much worse results. There are a lot of memories of when the incidents didn’t turn out as well and those make the desire to get a quick handle on things more prominent on your mind. It is always a good memory when we were able to prevent injury or serious damage.”

“Mostly I was best at handling the trucks and making sure they were working properly, while the other guys handled the hoses”, says Gib.