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Ripon Consolidated Fire being honored
queen group
Photo by Rachael Venema Photography The 2021 Ripon Almond Blossom Queen hopefuls are, from left, Gabrielle Martin, Riley Rangel, Brenda Vega, Kalani Kahandawala, Emma Phelps; (second row) Abigail Thompson, Jaedyn Hendryx, Naomi Wilbur, Rylie Kackley, and Katelyn Cardoza.

They’re vying for the title of Miss Ripon / Miss Almond Blossom Festival Queen.

For Riley Rangel, Abigail Thompson, Jaedyn Hendryx, Brenda Vega, Kalani Kahandawala, Emma Phelps, Rylie Kackley, Naomi Wilbur, Katelyn Cardoza, and Gabrielle Martin, the annual Speech Contest at Ripon Consolidated Fire District Station 2 on Thursday was a component towards that goal.

That’s according to Ripon Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kelly Donohue, who noted that each of the Almond Blossom princesses will take part in the virtual fashion show next month prior to the Feb. 26 queen coronation.

“This year is different. We’re not able to host the Almond Blossom Festival due to (COVID-19) regulations,” she said.

The Ripon Consolidated Fire District was announced as this year’s grand marshal despite the absence of the annual parade. Chief Dennis Bitters will have the honors of representing RCFD during this momentous anniversary year.

With that came the theme: “100 years of Protecting What’s Important.”

All 10 speeches involved the overall history of the RCFD, from makeup to ambulance service, and even tidbits about Chief Bitters.

Rangel, for starters, mentioned that the fire district was established in 1921. “Originally, the department only covered one block, and another was formed outside of town,” she said.

In 1963, the rural and city fire department formed a board of director and became one.

Thompson talked about the organizational makeup led by Chief Bitters.

She mentioned that his tasks include “running the day-to-day operations, being responsible for all fire fighters, and training his staff to keep our community safe,” Thompson said.

Hendryx reflected on the history of the past fire chiefs – seven in all.

The first, she noted, was Arthur L. Stewart Sr. in 1922. He laid the foundation for the fire district before joining the California Highway Patrol.

As for Bitters, he started as a volunteer in 1982. “He’s only member in the fire district to hold every rank,” she said.

Vega discussed the history of the memorial fund, including the Ripon Volunteer Fire Association Memorial Fund, as monitored by the five-member board.

“Over the years, the donations that the department receives have been used to better their overall services – they’ve purchased firefighter turnout gear, jaws of life, wheelchairs, walkers and other equipment for their medical program,” she said.

Kahandawala spoke on behalf of the ambulance services.

“Did you know that in the San Joaquin County Ripon is the only town that has ambulance service conjoined with a fire department? Because I didn’t,” she said.

Incidentally, the very first ambulance – made possible by a donation from community in 1974 – was a Dodge van that carry four patients at once with an oxygen tank, Kahandawala added.

Phelps mentioned some of the early apparatus used.

“When I think of the early apparatuses used, the first thing I think of is the bucket assembly line,” she said.

Ripon never used that technique, Phelps said upon talking to Bitters.

The first piece equipment was a chemical tank, mounted on wheels, hand-drawn and mixed with another chemical, she said.

Phelps also mentioned the old Model T Ford used during the Main Street parade.

Fast forward 100 years: Ripon Consolidated Fire District has three stations, five engines and two emergency ambulances.

Kackley spoke of the history and uses of the fire stations.

The center of the first fire district was located on Stockton Avenue and Main Street. “The Ripon Fire District only served one square mile and the Ripon population was 700,” she said.

Ripon’s current population is

The original station, used mostly to store equipment and office space, was completed in 1956 at a cost of $50,000, according to Kackley.

The unstaffed Station No. 3 on Ripon Road just off River Road, in contrast, was built on 2014 at a cost of $2.1 million made possible largely by redevelopment funds, she said.

Naomi Wilbur mentioned the longest serving members of the district.

With help of Connie Jorgensen from the Clarence Smit Museum, she found out that John Navarra, who served from 1950 to 1990, is longest surviving member.

Bitters is the current active member with 39 years.

“Ripon has always been a place for family,” said Wilbur, who talked to Bitters about how the district impacted the town over the years.

Cardoza discussed the services offered by the Ripon Consolidated Fire District.

“It’s very different from a fire department – the fire district doesn’t belong to the City of Ripon but instead has its own governing board like a city council with elected members,” she said.

RCFD services 56 square miles around Ripon, Cardoza added.

Gabrielle Martin, who is a junior at Enoch High – most of the candidates attend Ripon High – was thrilled to be on the Almond Blossom Royal Court. She talked about the staffing of RCFD under Chief Bitters and his many contributions.

“The staff is made up of 15 front liners, one fire instructor, two ambulance billing stock members and one administrative assistant,” Martin said.