First fire department was combined effort
July 03, 2001 11:00 pm
An early Harbor fire engine bought from Coos Bay in 1968, is mounted on a 1917 Stutz chassis.  ().
An early Harbor fire engine bought from Coos Bay in 1968, is mounted on a 1917 Stutz chassis. ().

This chapter is based upon John Coutrakon's tape-recorded interview with Robert L. Kerr, volunteer fireman in Brookings for 25 years, most of them as volunteer Fire Chief; and upon conversation with Frank Kelley Harbor's volunteer Fire Chief since 1961.

Flames Menace Town

in Spectacular Fire

HARBOR, Nov. 26 The little town of Harbor was given a real baptism of fire last Thursday afternoon which, for a time, threatened to destroy the entire community and also the town of Brookings.

Flames started by a group of small boys in a stump near the barn owned by J.W. Driskell and rented by Tom Jaggers. It was fanned by a high northwest wind and it spread rapidly to the barn which was destroyed with all of its contents.

The fire continued over fields to the home of J. B. Nye, burning it to the ground with part of the owners' belongings, and destroying a number of buildings and fences on other farms.

The flames caught in a large pile of driftwood on the south bank of the Chetco River, and there developed into a fierce blaze. From this, sparks were carried to the center span of the old railroad trestle of the C&O Lumber Company over the Chetco River.

The bridge was dry as tinder, and as the timbers were soaked with oil, soon the structure was enveloped in flames. It was a most spectacular sight, and attracted people from the entire countryside.

Volunteer firefighters rushed to the scene in an effort to prevent the blaze form spreading to the mill with all its valuable machinery on the north side of the river. Not having a water supply sufficient to cope with the flames, the north bridge pier in the river was dynamited. The bridge finally crumbled and swung toward the ocean and dropped into the water, a twisted mass of steel.

The firefighters were able to save the mill, and also prevent the fire from spreading, to any great extent, north of the Chetco.

Had the wind veered to the south during the progress of the flames Brookings would have been doomed. Gold Beach Reporter, Nov. 28, 1929:

That wasn't the first time Harbor had been threatened by fiery destruction. Eleven years earlier, in 1918, the town was nearly wiped out by a fire which originated in the logging camp of the Brookings Lumber Co., near Harbor. In that conflagration, the Antler Hotel, 12 other buildings, and some field crops were all destroyed.

In those early days Harbor had no fire-fighting equipment of any sort, except for hand buckets which could be passed along from person to person in a "bucket brigade."

Robert Kerr, a volunteer fireman in Brookings for 25 years, said that:

You'd be amazed how much firefighting can be done with a bunch of people on a bucket brigade. I've seen mills saved by nothing more than buckets. I can remember the Hedberg Mill fire on the Lower Harbor Road -- just to the north of where the boat marina is now. It started at night, under the heading in the mill. When the alarm was sounded volunteers rushed to it with their buckets, formed a bucket brigade from the river, and saved the mill.

I also recall the time the C&O Lumber Company on the hill, near the present airport, had a fire under the log deck at the back of the mill. By the time we got there, the wives of the owners and the employees who lived around in the mill houses had already formed a bucket brigade and pretty well had the fire under control.

A Joint Fire Department

The first fire department in the Chetco area was formed in 1934. The Brookings-Harbor Fire District protected Brookings, Harbor, and adjacent rural areas. Its only equipment, besides buckets, consisted of a couple of reels of hose, confiscated from the defunct C&O Company. It had no mechanized fire equipment of any kind at that time. All of the firefighters were volunteers.

Firefighters in those days were really most of the townspeople. Besides rushing to battle flames when needed, they staged community dances to raise funds to run the Department. As Bob Kerr tells it:

"They used to fill Christmas bags with candy and oranges and give handouts to all the people. In fact, that lasted until about 1955 or 1956, at which time enough churches had come into the area to take over that service, so the fire department canceled the Christmas baskets and for a number of years put on the fireworks display on he Fourth of July. The firemen also staged the Azalea Festival in its early years.

In the latter part of 1935, the Fire Department purchased from a local rancher a used Model A Ford truck. On it they put a one-inch pump, fan belt driven, and mounted on an engine block; a 250-gallon water tank; a hundred feet of extension ladder; one 16-foot extension ladder with roof hooks; a stretcher; and miscellaneous hand tools.

Four years later they bought a 1939 Chevrolet Truck chassis, which the local people converted into another fire truck.

The first fire hall, an old C&O Company garage, was moved from the mill area to a site at the rear of the Central Building, across the street and in front of the old Brookings Post Office. Elmer Bankus, owner of the Brookings Water Company, gave the building to the department. The firemen constructed a bell tower on it, and hung an old school bell from the timber frame.

There were no telephones in Brookings. To turn in a fire alarm, one had to go to a pole by the fire hall and throw a switch which activated the fire bell. Later, the bell alarm system was replaced by an electric siren installed on the roof of the Central Building.

In the late 1940s, volunteers led by Wilson Freeman, built a new fire station, a one-story building with two bays. It was constructed to house the fire truck as well as the local ambulance. After the City incorporated in 1951, a second story was added to that building to house the first city hall offices. That building still stands directly behind the Old Fashioned Fantasys store on a small frontage street parallel to Chetco Avenue.

A few years later, when the City Hall was moved up Chetco Avenue to the Crissey Building, the fire department occupied the entire building.

Living quarters were constructed in half of the upstairs section of the fire hall where the old city hall had functioned. The other half of the floor space was now used as a meeting hall. Volunteer firemen lived there and served as fire dispatchers. Russ Jenkins was the first operator. He received no pay, but was a really dedicated person in dispatching for both the fire and police departments. In later years, dispatchers became city employees.

Brookings Department

After incorporation, the city took over the assets of the Brookings-Harbor Fire District, which was dissolved.

In Brookings, the C&O Company had put in a few fire hydrants before it closed in 1925. Those hydrants were served by the old wooden flume system. Department records show that the old hydrants had better flows than did some of the hydrants installed later. Most of them were inoperable by the 1950s, so 30 new hydrants were installed in 1953-54. Meanwhile, in 1952, Brookings had bought a Howard Cooper Pumper truck.

Fire Siren to be

Tried Saturday

The Brookings Fire Department will try out their new siren at noon Saturday ... so dont get excited.

According to Neil Nelson, fire chief, the new siren is expected to be heard about two miles away. The Pilot, March 11, 1954

Pump Station Burns,

Water Shortage Critical

Firefighters of this area finally won the "Battle of Cemetery Ridge" Saturday afternoon, but not before raging flames had destroyed the Brookings Water Companys pumping station at Ransom Creek and plunged this city into an acute water shortage.

Mayor Fell Campbell issued an urgent plea Wednesday when he told people of Brookings to conserve the dwindling supply of water as much as possible until such time as the water company can get a line constructed to the Chetco River.

The fire, which broke out in a slash area east of Brookings Friday, swept out of control that night and before it was finally controlled it had burned an estimated 300 acres and threatened several homes near the cemetery. The Pilot, Oct. 2, 1958

At that time fire alarm calls were made to Ed and Mendy's Service Station, then someone would run over to punch the siren button. Outside of business hours, however, getting an alarm through was more difficult. The fire chief had a phone in his home, which meant that he had to be there to answer it, or hire someone to take such calls and sound the alarm.

In 1960, a revenue bond issue passed at a special election which made possible the purchase of a Rooney Pumper and a Plecktron Alarm System to alert and summon the volunteer firemen. These systems are still in use.

Crackdown on

Fire Truck Chasers

The patience of long-suffering police, sheriff's deputies, traffic officers, and firemen reached the breaking point this week when 212 cars followed the fire truck to a fire at the old Wilson Freeman place on Highway 101 south of Brookings. The vehicles clogged the highway, jammed side roads, crowded firefighters, got in the way of water supplies, and made it almost impossible to combat the flames.

"Never in all my years as a peace officer," said Brookings Police Chief Bud Cross, "have I seen such an exhibition of juvenile mentality. No, that word juvenile is unfair to juveniles. What I meant was such an exhibition of childish assinity.

"The heat is on," said Chief Cross, "and if I have my way it is going to be hot indeed." The Pilot, Aug. 25, 1960

Until 1974 the Brookings Fire Chief, as well as all of the firemen, were volunteers. In January of that year, the city hired its first full-time Chief. Donald G. Perry assumed the duties as head of the department on March 1, but resigned after less than four months on the job. Merle Frank, who was named as Fire Chief, also resigned two years later to move to Gresham. Then Tony Keeling became chief.

At one time, the Fire Chief had an official car. But in 1960 the chief drove a pickup truck which was equipped to carry some of the rescue and salvage equipment the pumper can't carry.

Harbor Fire Department

Harbor established its own Fire District in 1955, and in 1957 built a fire hall behind the present Grange Hall. An old surplus oil delivery truck was purchased and converted into a water tanker with a small portable pump. Until 1960 the Harbor District contracted with the Brookings Fire Department for services at the rate of $200 per year for up to eight fires. If there were more than eight fires, officials paid $25 per fire. That year Harbor bought a fire truck, and, in 1961, a second. A new Harbor fire house was built in 1967 because the old one was demolished when Highway 101 was widened. A federal forest receipts windfall provided the necessary funds to build the new fire hall.

Harbor built its present fire hall and water office on Benham Lane in 1974. The structure includes a lobby, kitchen, and hose tower.