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Oct. 6, 2013 / Journal-Pioneer
SUMMERSIDE - The Summerside volunteer fie department may not have been able to quickly quell the Great Fire of 1906, but its members were quick to celebrate 150 years worth of successes during an open house event on Saturday.
A steady flow of citizens and visitors turned out at the Fitzroy Street station to acknowledge the vital work of the department and pay their respects for the services the volunteer firefighters have provided over the decades.
“We all owe them a debt of gratitude,” stated Margaret Ann Craig.
“They are dedicated and well trained,” she acknowledged, citing the range of new equipment they employ as well as the dangers of chemical fires that weren’t a concern generations ago.
Kids enjoyed a barbecue, cake and refreshments of course, but were also encouraged to try their skills with a miniature fire hose, learn fire safety escape skills and get acquainted with department members and their equipment.
The department has been fortunate to have been able to acquire and preserve equipment from its very earliest days, and displayed it along side the most modern of ladder and pumper trucks.
The highlight of the event was a re-enactment of the Great Fire of 1906.
Organized by the fire department and Wyatt Heritage Properties Inc., the Great Fire story was retold as smoke began to pour from the MacNaught Centre and Archives on Spring Street. Paul Olscamp provided the narration for a couple of hundred onlookers.
The fire warden, portrayed by Barry Whalen, began by running south towards the fire hall, yelling at the top of his lungs while twirling a noisemaker to rouse the town.
Responding to the alarm, women came out of the Wyatt House and reacted to smoke pouring out of the MacNaught House — located across the street — knowing there was someone in the house.
Then the action really started to heat up.
Several firemen arrived on foot with a ladder and rescued the damsel in distress. Within minutes, an 1863-era hand-operated pumper was pushed up Spring Street by 12 volunteers and positioned on the lawn to hose down the building.
Then came the department’s steam-powered pumper, “the Beaver,” arrived shortly thereafter, drawn by two heavy horses. Finally, a hose carriage was wheeled in to provide extra water.
While the re-enactment was easily contained — and the properties did survive the original inferno — the Great Fire ended up destroying more than 150 buildings in a two-block swath, from the downtown railway freight shed northwestward.
Lori Ellis, a board member of Wyatt Heritage Properties Inc., felt the re-enactment came together well to provide a snapshot of the worst fire in Summerside’s history.
Sarah Boeker, who lives near the fire hall, has been watching the practice for weeks but it was her first time seeing them in action.
She and husband, Aaron, recently purchased the Island Home Bed & Breakfast, which was built in 1907 on property purchased from a burned-out homeowner.
“It felt like the real thing happening,” she exclaimed.
“You forget about the history behind it. It was well-described.”
Aaron was intrigued by how much hard work was involved.
Volunteers manning the hand pumper worked at 60 strokes per minute but only for about 10 minutes at a time. They could manage 120 strokes for about two minutes at a stretch.
Even modern firefighters are faced with significant challenges with modern equipment and safety gear.
“We are really proud of our fire department,” he assured.
After the demonstration, the open house continued with a stage play about the fire. Sherri Lee Darrach played a citizen narrator while Adam MacGregor told the story from the points of view of a firefighter, the mayor and a newspaper reporter.
Luckily, only one firefighter was injured during the destruction and no one died.
Darrach described the Great Fire of 1906 as “every citizen’s fire,” which, for 150 years, the Summerside fire department has relied on to draw the volunteers it needs to protect the community.