The Selkirk Fire Department turned 125, and to recognize the achievements and outstanding service from 1897 to now, Selkirk Council presented current and past members with a bronze plaque at the March 15th fire practice.
The department has risen from humble beginnings, where all it took to become a member was to follow the responding unit to the smoke, hang around and eventually be handed a hose.
These days, the department is a top-notch unit, well trained and even more well respected in the community. Mayor Larry Johannson says they deserve that respect and it’s been earned many times over in the 125 years.
“I’ve said it before and I have no problem saying it again, the City of Selkirk has one of the best, if not the best, fire department in the province,” Johannson said.
“We’ve got a fantastic group of community volunteers who respond to whatever call comes in, and often put their own safety and lives on the line. They’re backed by their families who offer understanding for time taken away and we couldn’t be more proud. They put in the hard work to make sure that Selkirk and its citizens are safe. What more could you ask for?”
“Selkirk Fire Department is an amazing group and a true asset to the community”
Councillor Doug Poirier, who for 20 years hosted a firefighters’ dinner at his restaurant that raised thousands of dollars for the Firefighters Burn Fund, knows the department and members well and he knows that residents of the city are in good hands.
“You couldn’t find a more dedicated group and their contributions to the city are very important,” Poirier said.
“They’re visible in the community and well respected. People know their value, but in reality there’s so much more that they do for Selkirk, under the radar, and I think people don’t necessarily realize the extent of their contributions. They step up for everything they’re asked for and on top of that they keep us all safe in emergency situations. The Selkirk Fire Department is an amazing group and a true asset to the community.”
125 years of heroic history
The department’s website details its history and prior to the formalizing of a department, fire response was pretty much folks with buckets of water running to dose the flames. Of course, back in the late 1800s, the city wasn’t the size it is today, so the bucket method was fairly successful.
But between 1894 and 1896 two different fires resulted in the complete loss of 20 buildings and in 1897 citizens of the day established the city’s first official fire brigade consisting of about 15 men and a horse drawn chemical engine.
The chemical engine was replaced by a water one with 1,500 feet of hose in 1900 and when the bell at Christ Church was sounded to alert citizens and volunteers to a fire, anyone with a horse drawn wagon raced to the fire hall with hopes of being the first to hitch on to the water engine. The first ones to do so were paid well, so it was competitive and resulted in horses and owners causing quite the commotion on Selkirk’s streets.
The Selkirk Volunteer Fire Brigade. c.1905 Manitoba Archives
1929 Chevy Pumper
Equipment was continually updated and by 1930 Selkirk had its first motorized engines, one a hose truck and the other a pumper. Changes kept coming and a siren on top of the water tower rang out to call the volunteers in. Eventually firefighters had dedicated phone lines in their homes to be summoned to a call.
These days, everyone has a cell phone and the city’s department is well equipped to keep citizens and businesses safe.
Commitment is unmatched
Equipment is crucial to a successful department, but equally important are the people connected with it. In the Selkirk Fire Department’s 125-year history it has had just nine fire chiefs, which speaks volumes to the commitment of the volunteers.
Ted Wozny was the Department’s sixth Fire Chief from 1978 to 1998, and he’s remained almost as committed to the department in his retirement as he was while on active duty.
Wozny is a walking, talking encyclopedia of information of the city’s fire history. He’s got binders full of the department’s life at his home, everything from newspaper clippings to photos and department logs.
“I have the most records of the Fire Department, from 1897 on,” Wozny said.
“I have hundreds of pages of information, but I’ve got it all in three-ring binders pretty much.”
He’s working with the current Fire Chief on compiling them so they’ll live on and he’s more than happy to share his experiences as a firefighter and chief, able to provide incredible detail about fires from decades ago.
The department has battled many large fires over the years, including the Big Four fire on Manitoba Avenue, Red Feather Barn, Gaynor’s grocery store, Booth Fishery, and the Eveline Hotel.
Wazny said the Big Four fire had plenty of tense moments when an explosion catapulted a firefighter off the roof of the smoldering building.
The fire was started by kids playing with matches and was called in by a passerby who saw the smoke.
“The building was burning for quite a while and was now smoldering with only smoke showing, as it lacked oxygen. It was about 1,500 degrees,” Wozny said.
The members arrived and knew they had to proceed with caution. Introducing oxygen quickly to a fire starved of it can create a flashover, Wozny said, and they wanted to avoid that.
“We had a firefighter put up a ladder on the side of the building to go on the roof and cut a hole in it to let out hot gases,” Wozny said.
“When he got on the edge of the roof someone opened the large back door, allowing a large amount of oxygen to enter, and this caused a flashover as it exploded with the building and contents bursting into flames.”
The explosion blew out the windows and lifted the roof which threw the firefighter to the ground.
“We were very glad he wasn’t hurt, only shaken up,” Wozny said.
Though the firefighter escaped serious injury, Wozny said there were fatalities over the years, including a resident of the Eveline Hotel, located where the Gordon Howard is today, who perished during a February 1979 fire there.
The hotel, originally called the Canada Pacific Hotel and built in the late 1800’s, presented challenges for firefighters because of its numerous renovations over the years.
“The fire was hard to put out because the building had been renovated so many times with fake ceilings and room dividers where the fire remained protected from the firemen,” Wozny said.
“Saving the building next door where the Golden Cue restaurant and Brian’s Catering were housed was a priority. Three fire hoses were putting water on the building to make sure it was protected.”
The department was on scene all night and into the next day to ensure the fire didn’t flare up again.
Danny Thorsteinson was Fire Chief No. 7. He served as the department’s chief for 17 years from 1999 to 2016.
In 2000, Thorsteinson was at the helm when a carelessly tossed cigarette butt ignited the Kiwanis on the Red 2 fire and burned the under-construction new build to the ground.
“K2 was a busy day,” Thorsteinson said.
“We’ve had big fires, but they’re in the middle of the night. We go there, work for three or four hours and we’re cleaning up when the sun comes up and nobody even knows we’ve been there.
“It just happened that day it was the daytime, hot and windy and it was just a spectator sport. The plume you could see from Winnipeg, so it attracted a lot of attention.”
Firefighter Craig Fiebelkorn, who in 2016 would become Fire Chief No. 8, was at the fire hall that day doing paperwork.
“I was actually the first truck on scene,” Fiebelkorn said.
“I remember the call came in as a garbage fire, so I jumped in the truck and pulled out of the hall and headed to K2 and as I turned the corner onto Eveline I’m going, ‘oh my god, this is not a garbage fire’. And I remember hearing Danny on the radio going, ‘bring everything’.
Dave Milner was a new recruit that year and hadn’t even officially started with the department, but he and the other new guys were called into action anyway.
“We just went to see it and kind of got dragged in,” Milner laughed.
“Everybody that was available, either by doing traffic control or filling bottles up or helping out with the hoses, different things, we were all busy. That’s how we started.
“My wife was there with me and she said, ‘wow, you really want to do this?”
That was 23 years ago and Milner is now Fire Chief No. 9 for the Department.
New recruits showed up that day and Fiebelkorn said retired members helped out as well.
“One of the things I remember the most is that at the start of the fire, a bunch of retired firefighters came down to help. It was interesting to see how they remembered what to do, no matter how long they’d been off the department, and it was refreshing to see,” he said.
The K2 fire spread quickly, easily devouring the partially constructed V-shaped building, fuelled by plenty of wind and air.
“The fire started at the bottom of that V and the south wind took it right up to the roof system in a minute,” Thorsteinson said.
The fire was historic for many reasons, including the fact it was likely the first time water bombers had been used in Canada in an urban setting.
“I knew we were in trouble as soon as I saw smoke coming out of both ends of the whole roof system,” Thorsteinson said.
“It was broached to put water on top, so I called 911 and asked for water bombers. It just so happened they were fairly close by, I think one was even out practising or something, and of course Reggie Luning was a pilot, and (his family) had (owned) Lakeland Dairies and he knew the lay of the land.
“911 gave me everything I wanted, when I wanted it.”
The cost for the bombers and a bird dog was $10,000 an hour at the time, and Thorsteinson, as part of the Fire Chiefs Association, lobbied to have the bombers considered a necessary service that shouldn’t be charged.
“To charge people for this to me was a little bit ludicrous,” he said.
“Just because it’s an urban setting, if you can see the actual need for it there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to get it.”
This led to a change in provincial policy and as long as a need for the bombers could be established, there was no charge.
First save lives, second make sure the fire doesn’t get bigger, third you’re fighting fire
Thorsteinson said the advancements in technology during his time were phenomenal.
Everything from thermal imaging cameras – which are useful for rescuing people but also locating where the heat is coming from in a smoke-filled house – to compressed air foam systems and the advent of positive pressure ventilation, made fighting fires safer.
With the latter, Thorsteinson said the use of large prop fans at an opening at one end of the building and an equal opening at the opposite end to force smoke and gases out allows firefighters to safely fight the fire and save people.
“Once you master that technique it’s night and day what the old days used to be, just opening a window or a door. Now you’ve got control over it,” he said.
“The tenant of fire is life, exposures, fire. First thing you’re going to do is try to save lives, second thing you’re going to do is make sure the fire doesn’t get bigger…and then you’re fighting the fire. You may be doing one, two or three of these things simultaneously if you have enough resources, but that’s the tenant of it.”
All four Chiefs agree that people are the reason for the Selkirk Fire Department’s success.
“It’s a people thing and it’s a family thing,” Thorsteinson says.
“We bring the whole family into things. It’s a big commitment to join us. We have a lot of social functions, besides just practices and fires, and training, we have some social things.”
Fiebelkorn says family describes the Selkirk Fire Department perfectly, and it has to be that way.
“There’s an importance of having the family involved and understanding what you do, because of the times we’re taken away from family stuff. You could ask any firefighter at any time, how many hockey games have you missed of your kids’, how many birthday parties have you been called away from, stuff like that,” he said.
“It’s important to keep families in the loop and show them that they’re appreciated and needed.”
When your volunteer on-call position can put you in some dangerous situations, it’s nice to know that the guys you’re going into battle with have your back. Camaraderie isn’t just a nice thing to build, it’s a necessity.
“Within the fire department itself, we run it like a big family. All the guys know the families, even extended families to a point,” Milner said.
“Let’s be honest, what we do is not safe and without the crew looking after each other it would be a whole different aspect. Everyone does an amazing job. We’ve had some big fires. We talk, communicate, help each other out and when you do that everything goes so much easier on the emergency scenes.
“They all have confidence in each other and that’s really big.”