Starting with a pump that couldn’t stay upright and growing to a well-respected fire department with 38 members, the Parksville Volunteer Fire Department has come a long way in 75 years.
With the 75th anniversary celebrations taking place Saturday, July 22, The NEWS spoke with assistant fire chief Tyrone Heigh and Parksville’s first career fire chief (now retired) Doug Banks about the history of the department.
The Parksville Volunteer Fire Department began in 1942, created in response to the Second World War, said Heigh.
“During the Second World War, the Japanese would send over incendiaries, balloons made out of paper maché,” he explained. “They would fly on the Pacific air currents and they would land in the forest and start forest fires.”
So the federal government created the Air Raid Precaution system, dropping off a trailer, pump, hoses, nozzles and other firefighting tools for Parksville volunteers to use.
But the pump tended to tip over as it had small wheels, said Heigh. Luckily, a community member donated the axle from a Ford Model A, which righted that problem. The pump was on display on Saturday as part of the 75th anniversary celebrations.
Banks’ grandfather, Bill Banks, was one of the first six members of the new department, along with his brother, Fred. Bill later became one of the department’s first fire chiefs, while Fred housed the pump at his shop before a firehall was built.
In a previous interview with The NEWS, Banks said his grandfather was keen on getting involved because he and his family had lost their house in a fire.
Then, in 1943, the first fire truck, a 1929 Graham Page, was purchased from a Chinese vegetable vendor for $50.
That same year, local businesses donated the wood and the labour to build the first firehall, located across Highway 19A from the present-day Dairy Queen, said Heigh.
“That firehall stayed in service until 1960,” he said.
The first purpose-built fire truck, old number two, wasn’t purchased until 1950. “That was ordered by Doug’s grandfather,” said Heigh. “And that truck showed up in a box car at the train station, but it didn’t have any equipment on it, so the ladies did some fundraising through bake sales and bazaars and stuff like that, they raised enough money to put ladders and other equipment on the truck.”
Old number two served in Parksville from 1950-1978, and was one of the vehicles on display at Saturday’s celebration.
The department has had two other firehalls over the years – the second built beside the Banks garage, and the current one.
Throughout the years, advances in communications technology have meant many changes in how the department signalled its members that there was a fire.
At first, one called 3-5 for the fire department, and whoever was there would set about getting in contact with the members.
At one time, there were just five telephones in the area, so someone would phone each person to spread the word, said Heigh.
At one point, the phone office was able to remote-activate the siren on the firehall’s roof to get the volunteer firefighters moving.
One of the memorable fires for Banks was one in downtown Parksville in 1994 that burned five stores and endangered the phone answering service that dispatched all the nearby fire departments at the time, Banks said.
“That was a bit of an event. We had 86 firefighters at the scene,” said Banks.
Banks was first elected to be the Parksville fire chief (as a volunteer) in 1989, but he later became the department’s first paid chief in 1992.
Now, the department has eight vehicles, including three pump vehicles, a ladder and a tender, and 38 members.
Over the years, the training to become a volunteer firefighter has become more formalized and more rigorous, said Heigh, but Parksville Volunteer Fire Department members continue to do their community and their predecessors proud, he said.
“I think, as a department, and the area as a whole, people are getting a professional service,” said Heigh. “And everybody here that serves in the department is very proud of what we do. We are very proud of where we’ve come from.
“We make sure that our guys understand the roots of the department and how we formed, and why we formed. And I think, I’ve always said it, that we kind of have the benefit of riding quite a few coat-tails. As new firefighters, making sure that we keep the reputation well-respected is important, and the guys do a great job of doing that.”
And it’s not hard to see.
In the early hours of July 22, just eight hours or so before the 75th celebration, PVFD firefighters were among members of six departments called to a fire in Hilliers which lasted five hours.
But that didn’t stop Parksville firefighters, or those from the surrounding area — including Coombs-Hilliers, which was in charge of the scene — from putting on the celebration for families and community members later that day.