This first official fire truck of the Town of Ponoka sits in front of the new Town Hall in 1906. Also notice the carts that held the fire hoses and the water tanks.

Reflections: Celebrating the long history of the Ponoka Fire Department

The department served Ponoka for 112 years protecting area residents

By Mike Rainone for the News

When both the councils of the town and county of Ponoka agreed to place their fire services under one umbrella this March it would bring to a close the long and colourful history of the Ponoka Fire Department (PFD) and countless dedicated men and women who have proudly served the most vital emergency needs and safety of our rapidly growing and thriving urban and rural communities from 1906 to 2018.

Firefighters come from all walks of life and occupations, and as well as passionately helping to make our communities a safe and happy place to live, they are also dedicated parents, grand-parents, coaches, neighbours, friends, and extremely busy volunteers.

Over those very active and progressive 112 years many amazing stories have been told of our overwhelming early growth and successes. But as those big wooden buildings were appearing everywhere there would also be so many extreme challenges and impending disasters that would suddenly occur when the dreaded calls of ‘fire’ came into Ponoka’s first telephone office and resulted in the instant response of every able bodied man and woman in the area to help battle the blaze and to assist those in immediate danger. Realizing the vital and immediate need of community wide protection and emergency measures the forefathers of the Village of Ponoka authorized the purchase of nine fire extinguishers in 1901 at a price of $18 as well as other appropriate fire-fighting equipment. In those humble beginnings the crew would utilize wooden carts, which were pushed by men or pulled by horses to the fire sight and included hoses, a hand pump, and tanks that could be filled from the Battle River and later from the CPR tower.

When Ponoka became a town in 1904 and the landscape began to fill rapidly with many new structures and excited citizens, fires would become an ongoing menace, and with the initial equipment unable to do the job our first council was faced with some major decisions going into the future. Finally in 1906 after a great deal of lobbying, Ponoka’s first motor driven, fully equipped fire engine arrived amid great celebration and was temporarily housed across the street from the newly proposed town hall, that would eventually be the new home of the council chambers, magistrate, jail, dogcatcher, meeting rooms, and fire hall. Later that same year a well attended meeting of enthused citizens would result in the formation of the town’s first Fire Brigade, with 20 folks volunteering their services, officers chosen, and Chief J.W. O’Brien leading the way.

The steady progress of the PFD over the years

From those colourful early years the Ponoka Fire Department grew at an amazing pace in order to meet the ever increasing fire safety, protection, and prevention demands of the rapidly expanding town and county areas.

Some of the major milestones of the PFD over the years included the relocation of the fire services to the town workshop across from the Town Hall on 48th Avenue and finally the opening of the fully modern 10-bay two-story fire hall at 5401-48th Avenue. This modern new building accommodated 14 fully equipped vehicles and vital fire-fighting accessories, and also included offices, classrooms for training, and a social lounge. At the peak of operations going through the late 1900s and into the 20th century the Ponoka Fire Department served an area of approximately 500 square miles, which included a long-standing joint service agreement with Ponoka County, as well as providing mutual aid to the surrounding areas of Rimbey, Lacombe, Hobbema, Bashaw, Bentley, and the Alberta Hospital. On the average the PFD responded to 170 to 200 (2,500 hours) of emergency calls annually under the direction of a full-time fire chief and volunteer members. At the sound of the alarm they were prepared and ready to put their lives on the line responding on a 24-7 year-round basis to structural fires, bush fires, grass fires, flood control and assistance, and yes, they likely even rescued the odd pet out of a tree. Other instant duties have included medical emergencies, assisting with Stars Air Ambulance arrival, highway accidents, Jaws of Life, dangerous goods incidents, and so much more. The PFD also hosted important yearly programs and promotions such as Toxic Round-up, fire prevention school tours, Fire Prevention Week, and community safety inspections, and all members were given the opportunity to attend the Fire Training School at Vermillion College.

Just a few cherished memories of 112 years of service in the Ponoka Fire Department

• Among the most horrific fires that our brave PFD members fought over the years included: on Railway Street in 1905 where fire destroyed a whole block and left only the Royal Hotel standing, the Crandall Lumber yard, Hornstein’s Store, several massive grain elevators, Great West Feeds, farm dorms at the Ponoka Mental Hospital, Hamilton’s IGA, and many district barns, poultry and livestock operations, only to mention a very few.

• Frank Mickey served as the public works foreman for the Town of Ponoka from 1955 to 1988, and it was in 1965 that Mayor Hector Labrie called him over to the town office and asked him if he would also like to become the fire chief. He paused for a moment, but when the mayor stated that it was worth an extra $100 a month he said ‘yes’, and stayed in that position for 20 years. Frank fondly recalls that in those early days they got paid $1 a fire, and in 1968 he and Bill Girling flew to Quebec and drove a brand new fire truck back. “Our PFD efforts were always done with great team work, we fought and learned together, and when there was an issue it was settled face-to-face.”

• There was also a ‘social side’ for the men and women of the Ponoka Fire Department and their very supportive families over the years. They looked forward to hosting Family Day events at Centennial Park, helped build the local playgrounds, enjoyed flooding the outdoor rinks, and always had a booth at the trade fair and the Stampede grounds during the rodeo. In ongoing efforts to raise funds for new equipment or community causes they hosted their annual gala Fireman’s Ball or took part in enjoyable games of ‘donkey baseball’, hockey, and golf. Along the way their presence was always appreciated at local celebrations such as the Stampede Parade, show and shine, Stampede fireworks, CPR Holiday Train, Midnight Madness Santa delivery, Centennial Park flag raising, Remembrance Day ceremonies, traffic control, and on and on. Our PFD members always looked forward to going up to the local schools to let the boys and girls have the thrill of their young lives by being a ‘fireman for a day’, riding in the big red truck, and of course sounding the siren. As well as making annual donations to the burn centre, Diabetes Association, Search and Rescue Dog Association, STARS, the Wheel Chair Van Society, muscular dystrophy, Victim Services and Wounded Warriors, our Ponoka Fire Department also proudly turned out in full force to assist with the funeral of a fallen comrade.

When I decided to write this Reflections story as a tribute and much-deserved appreciation for the outstanding efforts and amazing service of the hundreds of dedicated men and women, who were unsung heroes, and have served on the Ponoka Fire Department from 1906 to 2018 I would have liked to have listed all the names of the chiefs and firefighters, but I found out that would likely be impossible. Hopefully somewhere in the near future a plaque could be put together in their honour and memory to be placed in a prominent place in our community for all to see?

Going into the future everyone in the town and county districts can extend their full support, trust, and faith in the Ponoka County Regional Fire Services as they answer to our most vital emergency needs.

 

Likely one of the worst fires in Ponoka history was the massive pool grain elevator in 1951. The Ponoka Fire Department with the help of the Alberta Hospital department managed to contain the blaze and save the other structures along ‘Elevator row.’ Photos courtesy of Fort Ostell Museum

When there was a fire in Ponoka everyone came out to lend a hand.

With the arrival of spring and summer lots and lots of hot and stinky grass fires kept the PFD very busy for countless hours, days and nights, and usually weekends.

Members of the 2017 Ponoka Fire Department were, back row, left to right, firefighters Wayne Marsden, Marissa Hooper, Tracy Hillaby, Mark Pischke, Craig Coventry, Nathan Syson, Lorenzo Bolle, Pat Purnell, Sharon Klinger, Alyssa Klinger, Brooke Makkinga, and Jordie Dwyer. Seated in the front row is Lt. Dan Svitich, Capt. Sheldon Johnston, Asst. Chief Ken Kraft, Fire Chief Jamie Wilkinson, Asst. Chief Darrell Lawton, Capt. Reid Christiensen, and Lt. Derek Braun. Missing from the photo were firefighters Jesse Very, Jeremy Lawton, Tosha Serle, and Ivan Beloso. Photo by Jordie Dwyer

Members of the Ponoka Fire Department always enjoyed making presentations to community causes. Shown here in front of Unit 3 are left to right; Werner Nielsen, Bob Saruk, Fire Chief Bill Girling, and Ed Dutka. Photos courtesy of Fort Ostell Museum

In this classic photo the old 1930 PFD pumper is pumping the flood waters away from the front of the Ponoka Herald building on Railway Street.

The new Ponoka Fire Department training pumper is attending to a 1960s call to the Ponoka Jubilee Library.

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