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Fighting Fire

Today Beaver Island is blessed to have a top-notch Volunteer Fire Department, a group of men who have studied their task over the years and sacrificed much time to become as proficient at fighting fires as a precision drill team. They are so good at their job that visitors who see them in action assume they have always been here. But actually they are a relatively recent addition to the infrastructure of our community.

Few people today realize how devastating fire was in past eras. Those who have driven around with an old-timer and listened to talk about where people once lived quickly hear a common theme: "Yup, they lived right there, until their house burned down." Home after home burned to the ground. One of the reasons was that everyone heated with wood, but the modern insulated chimney had yet to be invented. Life was not easy, and few had enough extra time to lay in a supply of firewood far enough in advance to let it dry before being used, so creosote built up to the flash point. Chimney fires were very common. And most stoves were cheaply made, with fire boxes prone to burn through. Clearing land often involved burning. Even when a hundred ships stopped in St. James to buy cordwood each summer, the woods within a mile or two could meet the need, so people routinely burned logs just to get rid of them --a practice still followed, such as in the recent clearing on the south side of the Donegal Bay Road. From time to time these fires got out of hand. No one alive remembers the last time a significant portion of the Island burned, but a walk in one of our forests reveals the proof written in a language of charred stumps.

Fire was a constant threat. Not only did fire sweep through large tracts here from time to time, but smoke from uncontrolled fires in the Upper Peninsula would waft across the lake in the early twentieth century and before. Any place with a boiler and sawdust was a veritable powderkeg, and most Island sawmills burned. The Beaver Island Lumber Company mill positioned a row of 55-gallon barrels full of water on its roof, just in case, but this was done more to calm the men working there than as an effective way to put out a fire.

In the Mormon times and afterwards, the only way to put out a fire was through a bucket brigade. That required two things: a large group of people nearby, and a nearby source of water, such as a lake, stream, or pond. Or a dippable well, such as the one at the Egg Lake farm. Homes in the country were usually out of luck; by the time a crew was rounded up, only a pile of simmering ashes remained. The last bucket brigade people remember was when Pinky's home burned. Hugh Cole's hose was thawed out and used, and buckets, tubs, pitchers, and jugs were filled at Cull's and Gillespie's and passed from hand to hand. By the time a crowd formed the outcome was no longer in doubt, but their indefatigable actions kept the blaze from spreading, although Hugh's house was singed and at three times a fire sprang up under the Print Shop Museum porch from the intense heat.

Our first firefighters were the Coast Guards. After all, they were a group of disciplined men, used to ignoring danger and able to work as a team. And they had a phone. They had the Island's two largest pumps, which each put out 500 gallons per minute, and a smaller P60. They saved many a barn, net shed, and home in and around town. They even saved a fishboat that caught fire on its way out to the grounds, with some of them swimming out to it and opening the drums of gas before they could explode. The DNR acquired a water wagon, and one-armed Karl Kuebler could be counted on to bring it to where it was needed. Despite everyone pitching in, the limitations were obvious. For example, when McCafferty's home next to the Library caught fire just before Christmas, plenty of people showed up to help but they were too poorly equipped to keep it from burning to the ground. Bing and Madonna lost everything they owned, including the wrapped presents for their kids.

In the late 1950s, this long-standing problem was addressed by the formation of a volunteer Fire Department. They were dedicated, self-trained men. Bud McDonough became the first chief, but he had no equipment. The first call was for a fire at the Annands at Big Phil Gallagher's. Bud jumped in his pick-up with his sons and a hand-held fire extinguisher. Luckily, it was just a chimney fire, and they were able to put it out.

A few years later a fire truck was purchased in Dorr Michigan, a 1947 Chevy. This greatly increased their effectiveness, but there was nowhere to store it. An addition was finally put on the County Building, but the Road Commission begrudged the cost of heat. After much discussion of where to locate it, the first Fire Station was built on the hill behind the Ferry Dock. Bud gave way to Tim, only the second Chief we've had. Now a second Fire Station is in the works. Equipment abounds, enough so that a fire can be effectively surrounded and snuffed. The men have undergone extensive training, and are as skilled as any crew anywhere. Today there is high status associated with being a Beaver Island Fireman: these diligent men are our bravest and best, and make us all proud.




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