Fifty Years of Firefighting in Chelsea (1956-2006)
by Carol Martin. It originally appeared in Volume 32 of Up the Gatineau!, an annual journal published by the Gatineau Valley Historical Society.
Ernie Tardiff shared some scrapbooks and memories of 34 years as a volunteer firefighter in Chelsea for this article. Ernie was Assistant Chief for a short period in the mid-1970s, and Captain from 1993 to 2002. He is still a Quebec Auto Extrication and Learning Symposium Judge.
Long before settlers arrived in the Gatineau hills and began deliberately burning sections of forest to make way for farms, fires caused by lightning strikes swept across the forested land.
As a natural event or a man-made one, purposeful or a mistake, people use fire and are wary of fires. Humans need fire; they also need to harness and control it.
In 2006, Chelsea's fire department celebrated fifty years of service. Now a highly professional group skilled in dealing with a range of disasters, it began as a true grassroots organization. Not only did it depend on local volunteers - its business in the early days was mainly grass fires.
Municipal minutes of the 1950s mention a "Fire Committee." In 1955, the minutes record that delegations of ratepayers approached West Hull's Council to request a firefighting system. On September 27 and 28, 1956, the municipality organized a vote on the question, and 323 eligible electors turned out. By a majority of 220 to 103, they approved the establishment of a municipal firefighting system.
In addition to a special tax to help pay for the new system, the municipality raised a loan of $30,000 by issuing ten-year bonds. The budget included $7,000 to build a 25-by-35-foot fire hall (with a heating unit), $13,679.35 for a fire truck, and $320.65 for unforeseen expenses. An amendment to the proposed bylaw added a tanker truck to the list. The original building (at 181 Old Chelsea Road, currently the Doozy Candle Factory) is still standing, attached to the former town hall.
When Ernie Tardiff was a high school student, he'd worked for the National Capital Commission in the summer, and was "on call" with them to fight grass fires (for which he was paid, if called up). He became a West Hull volunteer firefighter in 1968, and was issued a pair of rubber boots, a canvas coat, and a fire helmet. In those days, volunteers would often turn up at fires dressed "as is," either forgetting, or not taking the time, to put on the regulation outfits.
And, of course, there was the problem of finding out where the fire was, before there were any house numbers. If they could see the smoke, it helped! The dispatcher would have passed on a general description of where the fire was, after which the firefighters had no further communication with the dispatcher, nor any way of contacting the other firefighters in their personal vehicles.
Over time, it became apparent that the skills needed to rescue people in case of fire were also valuable in other situations. Hikers, rock climbers and swimmers attracted to the Gatineau Park or the Gatineau River and local lakes sometimes needed emergency assistance. Highway accidents posed the threat of fire, but the people involved often needed to be rescued from their vehicles - sometimes with the aid of hand tools. In the late 1980s, the West Hull Fire Department took over automobile rescue from the Quebec Ambulance Service, and in 1989 members underwent "jaws of life" training with the West Carleton Fire Department. Chelsea firefighters have since become one of the foremost rescue teams in North America. Over the years, the auto extrication team has won the South-Eastern Quebec Championship, the Western Quebec Championship, and the Eastern Ontario Championship. It has also been one of twenty teams in North America invited to enter the International Championship competition (held in Florida).
While reacting quickly to emergencies has always been important, in the late 1980s, Chelsea's firefighters began "preplanning" exercises. One of their "what if" scenarios involved a tire dump in a disused gravel pit just north of Chelsea village, since there had already been a number of fires at tire dumps in the Ottawa-Hull region. Tires burn at a very high heat and can explode, and this kind of fire produces toxic fumes and residue. At around 8:30 p.m. on September 13, 1990, a fire at the tire dump was no longer a preplanned exercise, but a reality. Chelsea's (the Municipality of West Hull had been renamed earlier that year) firefighters were ready. Within 25 minutes, three front-end loaders and a heavy shovel were on the site, working at splitting up the piles of tires and covering them with sand. The Wakefield Fire Department sent a tanker to help, and the Cantley Fire Department was on standby in case of any other fire in Chelsea. By the time emergency officials from Montreal (to advise and assist in dealing with a fire involving hazardous material) arrived early the next morning, the fire was out.
Another initiative of the 1990s, under Chief Gordon McGillivray's direction, was for the fire department to become more visible in the community. To do this, the department began holding public events, such as an antique car show in the summer and a "haunted house" at the fire station on Hallowe'en. Recently, firefighters have hosted spring pancake breakfasts at Grand-Boisé school's sugar shack and donated the proceeds to local charities, such as Quail House and the Gatineau Memorial Hospital.
In the 1990s, the Quebec government brought in legislation requiring further training for all firefighters, including volunteers. Training sessions included fire behaviour, fire pumping, first aid and CPR (cardio-pulmonary resuscitation), as well as rope training (for rescues in Gatineau Park). The firefighters gave many months of their evenings and weekends for this training.
When the epic Ice Storm emergency of January 1998 paralyzed a large sector of Ontario and southwestern Quebec, including Chelsea, the fire department played a major role in Chelsea's response. In a command post set up at the fire station, volunteers manned the phones 24 hours a day. Firefighters helped wherever they were needed in the community, from pumping water out of basements and cutting and removing trees to actually fighting fires. They also assisted the Canadian Forces in clearing roads and getting people to community shelters.
The accumulated memories of his thirty-four years as a Chelsea firefighter are still vivid for Ernie Tardiff. Lorraine Larose became the first female firefighter, some time in the 1980s. Two of the firefighters, Marc Meunier and Jim Connolly, joined after personal experiences involving the department. After receiving assistance following an automobile accident, Marc became a volunteer, and Jim Connolly joined following a fire at his home. Some families who have had several members in the service are the Coynes, Dunlops, Faasens, Hamelins, Hendricks (cousins), Kellys, Laroses, Léveillés, McGillivrays, McKinleys, Meuniers, Miles, Poiriers and Trudeaus. A highlight of Ernie's career was when his son, Jamie, also became a volunteer.
Some of the changes in Chelsea during this fifty-year span have made firefighting more responsive and effective. House numbers, a 911 emergency number, and pagers for all firefighters, along with two-way radios in the vehicles, have made it much easier to locate an emergency and communicate information about it. The firefighting facilities and equipment have also increased to keep pace with the needs of a larger population and expanded highway travel. In 2006, Chelsea has three modern fire stations, four fire trucks and a rescue truck, three water tankers, three equipment trucks, and the Chiefs fire prevention vehicle. Personal equipment still includes rubber boots and a helmet; the coat has been replaced by a bunker suit, and gloves, air tanks, "down man" alarms and personal entry tools have been added. With a much broader mandate to deal with a host of potential emergencies, Chelsea's Fire Department still relies on its volunteers.
Chelsea Fire Department Chiefs
Don Moore; Murray Cook; Henri Ferland; Harold Yuill (1962-1964);
Truman Johnson (1964-1968);
Harold Milks (acting) (June 1968-August 1969);
Truman Johnson (1969-1971);
Harold Milks (1971-1973);
Donald McGillivray (1973-1979);
Norman Grant (1979-1987);
Gordon McGillivray (1987-1993);
Michael Dunlop (1993-2003);
Andrew Coyne (2003-2007);
André Hamelin (2007 to present).