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Pitt Meadows fire department celebrates 75 years

Origins were from fear along the North American coast of balloon bombs launched across the Pacific, aimed at igniting forests.
(From left) Fire safety technician Scott Kyle

In the bay of the Pitt Meadows Fire Hall, where all the trucks are parked, there is a thick navy blue stripe across the walls. Written within that stripe, in gold letters, are the names of all the honourary members.

The first name is Hans Hoffman.

Former chief Bill Parks was a firefighter in Pitt Meadows for almost 30 years, and he goes back far enough to remember a bit about the man who started it all, the city’s first fire chief – Hoffman.

It was just one of the memories that came back, as a group of veteran firefighters, most of them now retired, gathered on the occasion of the fire department’s 75th anniversary to reminisce for posterity.

In December of 1941, after the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, there was fear along the North American coast of balloon bombs that were launched across the Pacific, aimed at igniting forests. Hundreds did indeed arrive – one was found in Lumby last year.

Like many communities, Pitt Meadows’ first fire department started under the Air Raid Precautions initiative, and Hoffman operated out of his garage, Hoffman and Sons. One of the old white helmets from the ARP still resides in a display case at the fire hall, on 122A Avenue.

Parks said his father, who was also a founding member of the fire department, would visit Hoffman’s tool shop when he needed a “true mechanical genius.”

“I can remember going in there when I was a kid, about 10 years old with my dad, and it was like going into a Charles Dickens-ish scene, with parts and everything all over the place,” said Park. “Hans could fix anything. If he couldn’t get you a new part, he would make you a part.”

In 1942, Hoffman converted a Model A panel truck into the city’s first fire truck, using parts from two vehicles – a 1927 model and one from 1929.

The little truck still runs like a sewing machine, and is in parades every year.

It’s just one bright red part of the department’s colourful history.

Richard Ulmer was in the department for 16 years, having retired in 2000, and worked as the social director, organizing regular functions.

There were bike excursions to places like Powell River and Whidbey Island. Firefighters would pedal about 80 kilometres in a day, stopping at other fire halls, where they would be welcomed like family, and exchange hats or T-shirts.

They started a slo-pitch league, held golf tournaments and tossed dice on bunco nights.

“There was a lot of camaraderie,” said Ed Kark – a member for 34 years and who could make the fitness standard well into his 60s.

Everyone had kids, and their families grew up together. Misbehaving kids were warned: “There’s 80 eyes watching you.”

“We were more like a family then,” remembers Al Conway. “We have long-term friendships that developed out of this hall.”

They still are family – Ulmer’s daughter married Rich Harmston’s son.

The  department has changed over time. Now a lot of the 32 paid on-call volunteers are single guys in their early 20s, many looking for careers as full-time firefighters, said assistant chief Brad Perrie.

The call volume was higher in the 1980s and 1990s, about 700 per year, compared with approximately 550 now.

Parks recalls one weekend when the department had 17 calls.

“I had a daytime job. I would come home and go to bed, get up at 12 o’clock and go to a fire call until 5 a.m., and I would go home and change my clothes and go to work,” recalls Harmston. “Some days you would have four or five grass fires. The next day you could have nothing.”

There were some terrible calls – they remember when a pig farm burned. The firefighters would get the pigs out of the burning building, and the terrified animals would run right back in.

There were also car accidents and other fatalities that left them with “baggage.”

When the Justice Institute started producing materials to help emergency responders deal with critical incident stress, Parks was part of the team.

He concedes the job has left some bad memories.

“I counter that with all the good we did. People could be having the worst day of their lives, and we’re there to make it better,” said Park.

Joe Bachmann remembers a Christmas tree fire.

“The presents were ruined, and this little girl, she was upset, to say the least. We carried trauma pups [stuffed dalmatians] under the seat of the trucks, and I had the privilege that day to give her one. I gave her that pup and she clamped onto my leg, and Ill never forget that.”

Park said recruiting firefighters was a simple issue of manpower – people who were willing and able to get up at all hours, and do the job.

“I applied in July of ‘81, and by the end of August I was given a pager and I was a firefighter.”

They learned to use equipment as it was acquired.

“Back when I started, a lot of guys didn’t use breathing apparatus. We used to have a lot of smoke eaters,” recalls Ulmer.

Now firefighters have to show competency in each physical task they are expected to do – from using a hose to swinging an axe. And they have written work, like studying the science of fire behaviour.

Scott Kyle, one of the department’s full-time firefighters, said he did six months of training before he was given a pager.

All of the training didn’t give him a leg up on the veteran firefighters, he said.

“These guys are top notch,” he said. “You can learn from a book, but what you learn on the fire ground is more valuable. And no call is the same.”

Bachmann said there was a common denominator in the volunteers.

“They all wanted to give back, with no expectation of remuneration.”

They had to fundraise to buy equipment. Kark remembers when they raffled off a Trans Am, “Like Smokey and the Bandit,” and used the proceeds to buy a rescue truck.

The Lions Club contributed the jaws of life.

How does an old-timer know when his time as a firefighter has come to an end?

“When the pager goes off in the middle of the night, and you turn it off and go back to sleep,” said Park, getting a big laugh.

There is no mandatory retirement age, provided a firefighter is physically capable.

“I wanted to make sure I could do the job,” said Harmston. “If your knees start getting sore and someone has to tap you out, you could be putting someone else in jeopardy.

He retired nine years ago, after 32 years.

“I didn’t want to be a problem for someone else, so they have to watch me.”

They all miss the friendship and camaraderie.

“The adrenalin rush, too,” said Harmston. “You hear that pager go off in the middle of the night, I’d jump in my car and my hands would be shaking so bad …”

There was a beer fridge back at the hall.

“Sometimes we would come back from a fire call, and we would sit here for three hours and discuss it.”

Kark said there have been many Pitt Meadows men who gave years to the job.

“Everybody who comes into the department contributes to the success of the department, and how it operates.”

• This Saturday, members, current and former, will get together at Pitt Meadows Heritage Hall for a banquet and dance commemorating the 75th year of the Pitt Meadows fire department.


Neil Corbett

About the Author: Neil Corbett

I have been a journalist for more than 30 years, the past decade with the Maple Ridge-Pitt Meadows News.
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