Fighting fire with fire
Volunteers have answered call for 100 years
Before there was a fire department in Baldwin City, bucket brigades were used to battle fires, such as the one that destroyed the original post office on Eighth Street.
That blaze was in 1908, its origin was unknown and the total loss was listed at $18,000. That was also when the residents of Baldwin City realized they needed a better way to fight fire. Two years later, in 1910, the Baldwin City Volunteer Fire Department was chartered. Eight years after that, the city purchased its first “Auto Fire Truck” for $950.
While that was the early beginning of the city’s organized efforts to fight fire, it was only the start. Over the years, new trucks, new equipment, a new fire station, and, more than anything, better technology has evolved the department into a first-rate status for a city this size.
That department celebrated a century of fire fighting Sunday. While long-time Fire Chief Allen Craig hasn’t been around for all of those 100 years, he knows what he’s seen during his 39 years on the department, with 26 of those as chief.
“The training, the equipment, the trucks, how you fight fires has changed 10 fold,” said Craig. “The first fire I fought was in clothes like I have on now. I lost a pair of dress shoes and a dress shirt. Equipment is high tech now. The training is so much better.”
Possibly the timeliest improvement is in communication. Now there are cell phones in addition to the radios in the trucks and the pagers the 23 members of the department carry.
“We had no radios, no pagers, no nothing,” said Craig. “We had police or highway patrolmen stop us on fire runs when there wasn’t anything to them because we had no radios. When the fire phone rang, I was gone.”
He was in an apron most of the time when the calls came during the day, as he was cooking at his restaurant, Allen’s. He fought fires side by side with grocer Dale Caruthers, who did the same thing, heading to the fire without taking the time to yank off the apron. That’s just the way it was.
It also typifies the long-standing, century-old tradition of volunteers fighting Baldwin City’s fires.
“The 100-year anniversary of the charter for the creation of a fire department in Baldwin City is a milestone in the long history of our community,” said Mayor Ken Wagner. “Those who dedicate their time to the protection of our lives and property in our community are true community servants who are willing to risk their own safety to protect ours.
“For that, I am grateful and want to thank all of the people who have come before us, and those who are currently serving the fire department, for their service,” said Wagner. “I also want to encourage others in our community to consider joining the volunteer fire department. It is a great calling that embodies the spirit of smaller communities such as ours.”
City Administrator Jeff Dingman had similar thoughts.
“Those folks provide a valuable public service,” said Dingman. “They commit their spare time to training and being prepared to respond to help when others are in need. Volunteer firefighters and medical responders are becoming a rare breed, but they are out there all over the country risking their own wellbeing simply because they really love it.
“Baldwin City is fortunate to have a solid group of volunteers doing this work,” said Dingman. “Sustaining that sense of civic volunteerism for a hundred years is something they should all be proud of.”
The big one
There have been many fires in Baldwin City during that century and at least 20 “major” fires, including the First United Methodist Church, several Baker University buildings, an abandoned gas station and even a city power plant engine.
But none compare to the Kappa Sigma fraternity fire in 1976. Five fraternity brothers died in that fire on Aug. 29, which was caused by careless use of smoking materials. Craig had been on the department five years when that one erupted.
“Kappa Sig — that was the worst one,” he said. “The call came at five after 3 (a.m.). I could see the flames from my house.”
Baldwin City firefighters, as well as those from surrounding communities, battled that blaze for hours.
“I remember saying, ‘Turn that spotlight off.’ But it was the sun,” said Craig. “We about drained the water tower. We couldn’t have fought another fire. We didn’t have much water left.”
He remembers a lot about that fire, but mostly finding two of the five bodies, which was devastating. But he also remembers that no firefighters were injured.
“Nobody got hurt,” he said. “Everybody went in and everybody came out. That’s successful. The guy next to you is most important.”
Reaching the big time
Although there have been steady improvements in equipment, training, etc. during the century, nothing compares to 1998.
That’s when the new fire station was built and the department’s flagship truck, the Quint, with its massive 75-foot extension ladder, were added. As Craig recalls, the city council was favorable to buying the new truck, but switched gears when he pointed out that it wouldn’t fit in the old building, which is across the street from the present location and now houses the city’s public works department. It is tiny in comparison to the present station, which holds the big Quint, the Pierce engine, which was purchased in 2004, and the other trucks and equipment. It also has meeting and training areas.
“This is a dream world here — the fire station,” said Craig, as he looked around the station that was the site of a celebration Sunday to honor the century of fire-fighting history. “If you would have told me a year before (1997) that the council would say, ‘Build a new fire station and get a new truck,’ I would have said, ‘What are you smoking?’
“The city had just sold the nursing home and had all the money,” he said.
That wasn’t lost on Wagner, who made comments as mayor during Sunday’s event.
“As a community, we are proud of our fire department,” said Wagner. “In looking at the facility on Sunday, and the large investment that has been made over the years in equipment, I was somewhat in awe.
“Over the years, community leaders have made wise investments in equipment and facilities,” he said. “We truly have a first class department made up of community people and excellent equipment.”
Why do they do it?
The firemen risk their lives, on their own time, and receive little, if any, compensation. So why do they do it? For the community … and because they like it.
“We have a lot of fun,” said Craig. “These young guys, I give them all the credit. They go out and do what I used to do. I just supervise. We’ve got a lot of young guys that are into it. A lot of it is just liking to drive the trucks.”
One of those young guys is Matt Quick, who is now assistant fire chief. He joined the department in 1997 — when he was 18. Of course, fire fighting is in his blood. Craig is his uncle and his dad retired as a fire-fighting captain.
“I enjoy it a bunch — there’s always something different,” said Quick, adding that working for a fire department isn’t in his cards. “It just doesn’t pay enough to do it full time.”
Craig knows all about that, reflecting on his four decades of fighting fires.
“It’s been fun,” he said. “It’s been interesting. I’ve had times when I wanted to quit.”
But did he?
“Nope,” said Craig. “The main thing is command and training. Most of mine has been on the job. We have a lot of fun.”