Fenwick fire company celebrates century of service
BY SAMUEL PICCOLO
While last Saturday’s event at the Fenwick Fire Hall—the East Fenwick planning meeting—brought out less welcome passions, the next day residents returned to the hall in a more celebratory mood. The Fenwick Fire Fighters Association held its 100th anniversary on Sunday afternoon, with a barbecue and open house for the community in honour of the date.
A replica of Fenwick’s first-ever fire truck was parked outside the hall. Greg Beaulieu, a sergeant with the Niagara Regonal Police and a long-time volunteer firefighter, walked over to the truck and pointed to the pump.
“This is the original pump from 1917,” he said. “The only things that’ve changed are the handles. They used to be much longer, because there’d be eight men pumping.”
The truck’s siren is original too, and Beaulieu leaned over and cranked its handle. He stopped before it reached full volume, but the noise was nevertheless impressive.
“We set it off about 20 minutes ago when my mother-in-law was driving over here. She was two miles away and she pulled over to the side of the road because she thought a truck was coming. So it has some range to it.”
Standing outside the fire hall, which was opened in 2011, is the original siren from the original hall, which was located by the old train station on Maple Street, now long gone. When a call came in during that era, one firefighter would set off the signal at the hall to indicate to all members that they needed to assemble.
The methods of communication may have changed, but many of Fenwick’s volunteer firefighters still live within a few kilometres of the station, and Beaulieu said the average response time is less than ten minutes.
But many other things are different for local firefighters, and most evident among these on Sunday was the equipment. Just behind Beaulieu were the hall’s gleaming new trucks, towering up above as kids climbed in to take photos behind the wheel.
A fire suit from the 1960s was on display, too, right next to modern gear. Whereas the new suit ensures coverage from eyelash to toenail, and can withstand temperatures of up to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit, the coat from the ‘60s appeared more like a piece of tough cloth. There were no pants then, either, and the boots that firefighters were issued left vulnerable spots on the upper thigh.
Despite the advances in technology, in other ways firefighting is more difficult that it once was. Homes now are built to be more fire-resistant, and this helps, said Beaulieu.
“But now there are so many things made of plastic inside houses. And plastic burns much more quickly and much hotter than wood.”
Even with a response time of ten minutes, by the time firefighters arrive, fires are often too intense to attack from within the building. “At that point, we just have to surround and drown,” said Beaulieu.
Inside the hall, there were memorabilia and photographs from the hall’s history. A CPR dummy from the ’60s lay sprawled on a table, its auburn wig less faded than its clothes. There were newspaper clippings, too, from some of the more severe fires and accidents that the association has worked over the years. There was a two-page clipping from the Toronto Sun on the Hagersville tire fire, which drew international attention when it blazed for more than two weeks in 1990.
“I’m not sure if any Pelham firefighters helped out there,” said Beaulieu. “I’ll have to check with some of the older guys.”
He walked outside through the hall’s kitchen, where people sat on picnic tables near a barbecue. Beaulieu went up to one of the tables, where an older man in street clothes sat talking to a younger man in a fire uniform. He asked Ken Angle, the older man, if Pelham’s units had been involved.
“No,” said Angle. “But we were there for the Woerlen fire, when that mother and seven kids died. Worst day of my life.” He shook his head and looked down.
The Woerlen fire occurred in 2004 at a farmhouse in West Lincoln. The family’s father was away when it happened, but his seven children, aged 19 months to 11 years, all burned to death. His wife was pregnant when she died.
“The counselling we got after that fire saved us from losing any firefighters,” said Owen Simmonds, who is still a volunteer in Fenwick and also remembered the Woerlen fire. “West Lincoln didn’t have what we had, and they lost four guys after that.”
“It’s so much better now,” Angle said of the support network. “Not like when I started fifty-one years ago. It was just ‘suck it up.’ The ‘good old days’ my ass.”
The two men spent a moment recounting the calls that most impacted them over the years. Simmonds stood up and went over to pick up another hamburger.
His wife, who had been sitting beside him, spoke up.
“I remember one time there was a car accident, and the boy killed was about the same age as our son at the time. And he was driving the same sort of car that our son had just learned to drive in. Owen was really shattered then.” Angle nodded knowingly. Simmonds sat back down at the table.
“There was that boy—the one we saved from the well,” Angle said.
“Yeah,” said Simmonds. “He used to come around here, but I haven’t seen him since this new hall opened.”
“I saw him once since,” said Angle. “And I just broke down.” He trailed off, and the two were quiet for a minute. An antique car rolled past.
“That’s John Burger there,” said Angle, looking to the driver. “Do you remember when he turned on the lights? My god.”
They had responded to a call that concerned a suicidal boy. The boy had turned on all the gas jets in his house and then hid up in the attic, waiting to suffocate. The firefighters climbed up there to talk him down, purposefully leaving the lights off for fear of sparking an explosion.
Angle continued. “And Burger came in and said, ‘Gee, it’s dark in here!’ and switched on the lights.”
He laughed. “Ah, we’ll never let him forget that.”
Another Fenwick firefighter in uniform came over to Angle and pointed to the kids who were being helped to shoot a fire hose at a plywood mock-up of a burning house. With each jet of water the fiery windows spun in place, reversing and the flipping back to reveal flames once more.
“No matter what those kids do, Ken, that fire just keeps coming back,” he said.
“Yep,” said Angle. “Every time they get it dormant it self-ignites again.”
A few politicians came and went. A good 80 burgers were served. As the event wound down, parents scooped up their hose-handling charges and squired them off home. Monday was a school day and there were some Sunday chores left to do.