ILWACO - On Aug. 10 the Ilwaco Volunteer Fire Department celebrated its 120th year in fire and emergency service. As many remember, the last year has been challenging for the department, which has been working out of the Ilwaco city shop since the November 2006 fire.
But things are gradually looking up. Under the direction of Portland architect, Michael Willis, a new two-story fire hall is in the planning stages. With new advertising ideas, the department has also picked up three new volunteers.
They purchased a 2007 Pierce Contender fire truck with their reserve fund at the end of July. Joining Ilwaco's 2,000 Pierce truck, the new pumper holds 1,000 gallons of water and can pump 1,250 gallons per minute. According to Ilwaco Fire Chief Tom Williams, all of the Peninsula fire departments have Pierce trucks, which makes learning the truck's operations very simple.
Aug. 10, 1887Among the historic pages of the Ilwaco village's recorded minutes, there lies a page from Aug. 10, 1887 that begins with the following:
The citizens of Ilwaco met for the purpose of organizing a fire company, who in case of fire in the village of Ilwaco could be prepared to more systematically combat its ravages. Meeting was called to order by J. Broenisor who was called on to preside over the meeting. A company was organized to be known as "Ilwaco Hook and Ladder Co. No. 1.
Led by foreman Amos Markham, the Ilwaco Hook and Ladder Company was comprised of a group of male citizen volunteers and a lone cart carrying hoses, ladders, water buckets and a 75-gallon chemical tank. For more than a decade Ilwaco's Hook and Ladder cart sufficed for fighting local fires until the Seaborg Cannery burned to the ground on Aug. 16, 1898, despite the men's extensive efforts.
Knowing that the town's firefighters deserved better, Ilwaco saloon owner Jack Wilson came up with an idea that would solve all of the department's problems.
Built in New York in 1846, a Button Squirrel Tail Hand Pumper arrived at Fort Canby by way of a sailing ship's route around South America's Cape Horn. At Fort Canby, it served as a fire pumper for the fort and areas in Ilwaco.
Nicknamed the "Mankiller" for the manpower needed to operate it, the 16-man pumper was transported by the 142-foot Washington stern-wheeler to help suppress the 1883 Astoria waterfront fire. Drawn by horses and sucking water through the hose from the Columbia River, the pumper directed water at the flames with a help from a rhythmic pumping crew. After quite a few years of fire calls, the Mankiller was eventually put out of commission when more modern equipment became available. The Mankiller was then retired from active service and was set aside on Fort Canby property.
Wilson, who had served on the fort's firefighting crew, purchased the Mankiller from the fort following the Seaborg Cannery fire and donated it to the Ilwaco Hook and Ladder Company in 1899.
In 1913, Chief William K. Inman (who held the position continually for 30 years) led the Hook and Ladder Company to possess a converted 1913 Model T Ford pickup truck, which carried 500 feet of fire hose and pulled the Mankiller to future destinations until it helped put out its final fire in 1920.
With donations of masks and raincoats from Ilwaco merchants, the Ilwaco Hook and Ladder Company eventually became the Ilwaco Fire Department in 1938. In addition to fighting fires and rescuing citizens, the Ilwaco Fire Department also donated time to a variety of other efforts, including performing all-night watches for two years after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
In the meantime, Inman had kept the Mankiller in a shed on Lake Street for years. In 1951, the pumper and original hose cart were brought to Fort Columbia State Park, where they were on display for 25 years. In 1988, the Ilwaco Volunteer Firemen's Association created a museum at 302 Lake Street to display them, where they still remain (and yes, they still function).
Volunteers rememberedOver the years, many volunteer firefighters have enjoyed protecting the community, such as Lawrence Wallin, who volunteered with the department for 25 years. At a time when every home was heated by woodstove, the department often received fire calls that threatened to burn the entire building to the ground. As the city utilities superintendent at the time, Wallin says he always heard the sirens and was available 75 percent of the time.
Serving as secretary, a training officer and later the assistant fire chief with Don Beasley, Wallin says he remembers when all the department had were homemade trucks made by blacksmith Oscar Nyberg.
"I remember one of our volunteers, Dennis Kimbrough, he was a local blacksmith and veteran of World War I," Wallin reminisces. "He was one of the first volunteer black firemen in the State of Washington ... We also had different coast guard people that were stationed here and joined the department for a shore time. We had a lot of interesting people come through and a lot of training to do to keep up to date. And the Ilwaco and Long Beach departments always worked so well together - and they still do."
Wallin also tells firefighting stories of yesteryear, such as the call that brought them out to a three-story house fire on Willows Road. As Wallin and others walked into the main floor dining room, the heat caused the ceiling varnish to drip onto the room's white tablecloths.
"We both looked at each other and said, 'Let's get out of here!,'" laughs Wallin. "As soon as we got out, all the windows blew out."
He remembers one winter where a strong east wind made for very cold temperatures on the Peninsula. Out in the cold, he heard the sirens blare and found out that the Chinook Lutheran Church had caught fire from a broken power line. With such dangerous conditions, Wallin drove a sand truck the entire slippery route to Chinook to make way for the department and their trucks.
"As soon as I got there, I parked and got out of my truck and immediately slipped and fell down," he laughs.
On a fall day in 1962, Pacific Northwest areas received a warning of a big storm brewing (later dubbed the Columbus Day Storm). In Ilwaco, many of the firemen settled in at the station with the door wide-open, wondering where the wind was when the power went out. While the wind picked up, the fire fighters watched sheet metal and other debris fly by.
"We saw a lady staggering down the street, so we went out to get her so she wouldn't get hit by the flying debris," Wallin chuckles. "Come to find out, she had come from the tavern and was just trying to get home. A state patrolman, who shall remain nameless, came by and we sent her with him, he took her home ... By midnight, the roof of the Hilltop School had blown off and some of us went up there to sweep up the one to one and a half inches of water from the hallways and stairwells."
Lots to be proud ofAs for the Ilwaco Volunteer Fire Department, it is now in its 120th year and under reconstruction in several areas - the department is patiently waiting for a replacement fire station, which they hope will provide adequate storage and possibly more space that could be used as living quarters for firefighters or the Medix crew. Currently, they are working with what they recovered from the fire, but are still waiting for the insurance company to replace more of the lost equipment.
Despite their challenges, Williams says the Ilwaco fire department has the best fire rating on the Peninsula, which means better fire insurance rates for commercial buildings. The rating system typically gives a department with exemplary service a rank of "one" and least effective fire suppression service a ranking of "10." According to Williams, the Ilwaco Volunteer Fire Department is currently ranked as a six, whereas other departments are ranked in the seven through nine categories.
"Through the help of the general public, the voters and neighboring areas, we have been able to respond to emergencies," says Williams, who has been a part of the Ilwaco fire department since 1973 and fire chief since 1980. Assistant Fire Chief Kerry Suomela has been with the department since 1971. "But we have a long way to go. We need more equipment and more storage, but we will eventually be bigger and better."
The Ilwaco fire department currently has 22 volunteers, seven of which are emergency medical technicians. To find out more about volunteering, call Tom Williams at 642-3046 or Ilwaco City Hall at 642-3145.