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San Antonio's fire department melds into Pasco's fold

For decades, deep into a long-forgotten past, as the town changed its name and changed it back again, the San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department has served its east Pasco community.

On Tuesday, that ended.

Pasco County commissioners voted unanimously in favor of the transition Tuesday. The first three county firefighters will staff the San Antonio fire station at 8:30 a.m. this morning, marking the start of a new era _ and the end of an old one _ in San Antonio fire protection.

County Fire Chief Anthony LaPinto said his department will do everything it can to make volunteers feel welcome at their old station. The county will reserve the San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department's old truck for volunteer crews who agree to help out as a new auxiliary. The volunteers' old sign will even remain on the front of the brick fire station.

But the department will be under new management as it becomes Pasco County Station 27, the newest in the county system.

Tuesday's changing of the guard went without fanfare.

Former volunteer fire chief Troy Newton, a lightning rod in a five-month struggle over the volunteer department's direction, passed the day at his other job, working at the state's Division of Forestry office in Dade City.

LaPinto was busy with the County Commission.

The first county construction crews dropped off stacks of drywall and prepared to start renovating the station this morning.

Even longtime chief Frank Hill, who led the department for 36 years until he retired in 1986, said the changeover was just a sign of the times.

"There have been so many changes," said Hill, 79. "The young men grew up and moved on, and the older ones, they're leaving us."

County commissioners on Tuesday approved spending $30,000 to pay overtime for firefighters assigned to the San Antonio station and agreed that residents of the 71-square-mile San Antonio fire district would pay a slightly higher tax bill to cover the cost. In 2002, San Antonio will revert to the same rate charged everyone in county fire districts.

Hill said in the old days, there were plenty of people who lived and worked in the community who could volunteer to put out fires when needed.

But today many people move away to find jobs, and others can't leave work to fight a fire, Hill said.

While he was chief, Hill also was the town's postmaster. When a fire was reported, Hill said he would close the post office and head to the fire.

"One time I had a (postal) inspector there," Hill recalled. "He just jumped in the car and went along with me. He said he had a great time."

Hill recalled helping out when fire ripped through the Cummer sawmill in Lacoochee and when another blaze razed a Zephyrhills lumberyard. The dates are hazy, he said, but he remembers the fires as some of the biggest around.

Local historian Joe Herrmann said other tests for the department came when fire leveled the original building at Saint Leo College in the summer of 1928 and another blaze tore through the school's science hall in 1945.

The exact founding date of the fire department is hard to pinpoint, Herrmann said. Most of the old-timers have died.

Newton said the department has an old piece of equipment stamped "Lake Jovita Fire Department" from when the town briefly changed its name from San Antonio to Lake Jovita in the 1920s. And Hill said he remembers the 1913 American LaFrance firetruck he inherited when he took over as chief.

Newton said he will continue to serve with other volunteers, but not under the name San Antonio Volunteer Fire Department. Instead, they will be under the county department's umbrella.

LaPinto said his department will take care not to bruise the feelings of San Antonio residents used to having an independent fire department.

"We all know that the volunteer fire department has a lot of heritage to it," LaPinto said. "I have no intention of destroying that heritage."

_ Staff writer James Thorner contributed to this report.