By Greg Laychak
“Over the past 25 years that I have been with the Agassiz Fire Department (AFD) we have seen many changes in the fire service in British Columbia, including the type of vehicles, equipment and changes to the training standard throughout British Columbia and Canada. With the AFD, training has always been our number one priority, because it will be training that will carry a firefighter through all of the situations that we respond to—to keep ourselves safe, rescue people when needed and to protect property. The most important part of our job is to have all of our emergency responders return safely back to their halls and to their families.”
– Wayne Dyer, Fire Chief
Fighting fires has always been nasty business, but Fern and Earl Dyer remember a time when it was even more challenging.
Back in the fall of ‘45 when Fern was on his first fire, the water supply was pulled by a team of horses, there were no uniforms or head gear, and rescuers like himself would be tethered to a rope when they plunged into a blaze looking for missing residents.
The Agassiz fire department had just been formed that year, and Fern was there from nearly the beginning.
When his brother Earl was discharged from the military in Manitoba the next year he moved to join his family, and naturally fell in beside sibling Fern at the department.
“We were 16 and 22 and you went to help,” says Fern in his apartment across the hall from brother Earl’s. “It wasn’t a matter of belonging to the fire department, you just went to help and you stayed with it, that’s all.”
The two of them worked completely on a volunteer basis and “whatever salary there was, you took it at Christmas time and you could probably have bought a case of beer with it,” recalls Fern, while the two chuckle.
Equipment upgrades were slow coming in those days, and the Dyers brothers remember the “homemade” vehicles that couldn’t make it up the hill on the road to Harrison Mills until water was emptied from the tank.
And their methods reflected the times, remembers 91-year-old Earl.
“We never really put a fire out, we just controlled,” he says. “You’d have to tear [the house] down anyhow so we used to let it burn to the ground level and your cleanup was nothing.”
Something that hasn’t changed over the years according to Earl: tragedy.
The worst fire he attended was at a meat freezer facility where the owner’s son died after they couldn’t find him in the structure’s maze of alleys.
“The old masks they had in those days were as good as hanging a handkerchief in front of you,” Fern says also recalling that particular fire. “[Former assistant chief] Keith Hardy and I spent two trips going back in to see if we could find the young guy, we were both tethered to a line to the door, we were in there too long.”
The brothers go quiet for a moment before Fern launches back into stories about fighting chimney fires from the rooftops.
Through the 70 years of the department’s existence there is as much heroism as misfortune. Countless lives have been saved and people helped over the decades.
Jennifer Hardy, the first woman firefighter (1975-81) on the team remembers the rewards of the job.
“I remember being in Seabird and having about 18 kittens in my hat because they kept wanting to run back to the fire,” she says. “I got them all together and put them in my hat and carried them off.”
It was a smaller town then and with her father as assistant fire chief the 16-year-old Jennifer was easily talked into the firefighter role.
She’d always heard her father Keith talking about his adventures with the crew, and vicariously saw the excitement of helping others.
Now Jennifer looks through the lobby window outside her office at Pioneer Motors and points to the municipal building that used to be the fire station.
If the father and daughter duo were at work in the family auto shop, they would just run across the street when there was a fire.
“We ran on a siren that got the word out to all of us,” Jennifer says. “That’s how small we were. We didn’t have a pager system at all.”
Years ahead of his daughter’s time before Keith ran out the back door of the shop to fight his first fire, the fire chief had run over to get his help.
“[The chief] said, ‘Come on, you’re driving the firetruck,’” the 77-year-old says in the garage where he used to work. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to operate the truck,’ and he said, ‘You just get it there and somebody will operate it for you.’”
Like father, like daughter, Jennifer would later drive the second truck when there was a big blaze.
When she joined, the department had to get her new equipment because none of the men’s gear would fit her, she recalls.
And she would turn down help from the others in order to prove she could pull her own weight on the crew.
Everyone was good to Jennifer despite it being “a man’s world at that time,” she says.
They all just worked together as a team to try and help the community, much as things are done today and much as they were in the Dyer brothers’ time.
Even without as much training and equipment as there is these days, they pulled it off.
“We were professional and we still did a professional job,” Jennifer says. “We were knowledgeable and there wasn’t anything that we couldn’t do. We were on the ball and we were always there helping.”
In 70 years of the Agassiz Fire Department’s existence, that’s something that hasn’t changed.
“Everybody helped everybody,” Fern Dyer says under the view of Mount Cheam in his living room window. “This has always been a pretty good community for everybody helping.
“You ask for help you got good help around here.”
• The Agassiz Fire Department celebrates its 70th anniversary this Friday at the 56th annual banquet and awards night with alumni members and honoured guests.